WILMINGTON- The Windham Regional Commission aired a number of grievances related to the development of Haystack Mountain by the Hermitage Club in a letter to District 2 Environmental Commission Coordinator April Hensel earlier this month. The WRC wrote the letter as a response to their review of multiple Act 250 applications, citing their frustration with the lack of an updated master plan from the Hermitage, as well as a history of after-the-fact permit applications and multiple permit violations by the developers.
While the Hermitage has presented proposed master plans to the WRC on three occasions this year, WRC executive director L. Christopher Campany writes that the WRC has concerns over what they call a “pattern of behavior” by the Hermitage.
“We have continued to be asked to deliberate upon pieces of the overall project rather than a master plan that presents all of the project elements as a whole,” writes Campany. “Second, the applicant continues to chase construction executed without permits with applications after the fact. While this approach appears to be functionally within the bounds of what the state of Vermont allows, this approach undermines the integrity of the application and the applicant.”
The WRC recommended that the Hermitage submit a complete master plan before seeking any further permit deliberations by the DEC. “We are asking the applicant himself to choose an efficient, orderly approach to the development at Hermitage, rather than the scattershot approach that has been adopted to date,” said Campany.
In a letter of response last week, Hermitage president Jim Barnes said he was “surprised and disappointed” by the WRC’s letter. While a master plan is not a state-required document for such developments, it is a helpful tool, and the Hermitage is in agreement that an updated master plan is needed. Barnes said that his group is working diligently to put together a complete master permit application that incorporates the current master plan, as well as Act 250 permits already acquired, and future plans for development.
According to Barnes, Haystack Corporation received three Act 250 permits for their master plan beginning in 1970, after the establishment of Act 250. Barnes explains that the DEC approved a land use permit (umbrella permit) for these Act 250 permits in 1985, which would govern future development of the Haystack properties listed in the land use permit. Barnes makes the argument that this umbrella permit is still in effect and has served as the basis for 80 Act 250 construction permits issued over the last 29 years for individual projects at Haystack and the Hermitage Club. Barnes is also looking to organize these working pieces.
“It has become clear,” said Barnes, “that with the number and variety of projects that have been developed at Haystack and Hermitage over the years, in reliance on the umbrella permit and Act 250 permits, (and due to the) the changes that we are contemplating and the concerns expressed by the DEC, the original Haystack Master Plan needs to be updated.”
According to Campany, a master plan is important for a large-scale project such as a resort, as it gets all of the agencies involved in permitting on the same page. “It lets us know the whole picture of what is proposed and what the impacts are on different resources from traffic to water,” said Campany. “Right now, we’re lacking the complete, big picture and the ability to know what problems might arise. If you’re building a house, you want to see the plan for the whole house, not look at the house room by room.”
The Hermitage had hoped to file a new master permit application before August, but is now aiming for the end of September. While Barnes agrees that the Hermitage needs to present a new master plan for DEC and WRC review, he does not believe its absence constitutes the cessation of applying for construction permits, or undermines the integrity of his construction applications. Barnes contends that if done properly, the individual permit approach should provide more certainty and expedite the permit process, and is recognized by Act 250 and the Natural Resources Board for doing as much.
Campany disagrees, explaining that after-the-fact permitting leads to negative consequences that must be corrected rather than avoided in the first place, and incomplete applications have led to the inefficient use of time and resources of public agencies funded by taxpayers, as well as volunteer town boards.
WRC Senior Planner John Bennett provided examples of such instances, including the creation of a boat dock on Mirror Lake, which he said originally included the dumping of sand on an emergency spillway, a dock in the middle of the lake, and a decorative rail fence. “This is something they did already,” said Bennett. “Afterward it occurred to them that maybe they should file a permit. That lake is a snowmaking lake and the subject of massive Act 250 permit efforts over the years, as there has been the proposed enlarging of it and augmenting its flow with another stream.” He also said the Hermitage installed a putting green near the base lodge without a permit. “Apparently they didn’t realize, or forgot to apply for a permit before they built that, too.”
In his response, Barnes asked that the WRC and other parties “understand that the Hermitage Club is, as Haystack was before we acquired the resort, a work in process.” Barnes goes on to say that the Hermitage would do their best to see future construction permits are completed before they are filed.
Campany’s letter also states that the Hermitage’s history of multiple permit violations is troubling because it demonstrates a lack of respect for the purpose of Act 250 and those who administer and participate as parties in the process. The Hermitage has faced multiple Act 250 violations in the past, including in 2012 when an environmental court judge ordered all un-permitted construction at the resort to come to a halt. In the same decision by Judge Thomas Durkin, the Hermitage was ordered to abandon a recently constructed snowmobiling trail, 15 feet wide in some spots, that cut through conservation land. Barnes denied that the trail was the work of any Hermitage-related individual or group.
In 2013, the Agency of Natural Resources determined that the Hermitage needed to take down three unauthorized snowmobile bridges, one over Cold Brook, and two over Oak Brook, which had created a channel constriction and impeded a floodplain access. The ANR ordered the Hermitage to complete a remediation project to restore Cold Brook.
Most recently, Cold Brook Fire District and the Hermitage were cited for an Act 250 violation in July relating to conditions of a well permit. According to the notice of alleged violation, driveway access to the well was not constructed on its depicted location on plans and was built within the 50-foot buffer zone of a vernal pool wetland. Plans also said that 0.06 acres of the project site would be covered with impervious areas, but on July 8, a site visit showed roughly double that amount of impervious surface in the vicinity. The notice also describes a 40-by-50-foot parking area near the well, and that tree cutting for a control building would need to be completed along East Village Road and along the driveway. Instead, between June 6 and July 6, “the respondent cut a power line right of way for overhead electrical wires in some places 30 feet wide.”
The notice also said a driveway entrance planned for 10 feet wide was in fact found to have been made 47 feet wide, and the location of power lines, which were not to disturb wetlands or streams, were changed to facilitate power delivery to future residential development as well as the pump house. A swath of trees cut for the power line was also cut within feet of a wetland. The respondents were ordered to cease and desist all power line clearing, installation, and land clearing activities until permits were acquired for all changes.
“We don’t know why the applicant has exhibited the behavior described here,” said Campany’s letter, “but we feel compelled to speak up in defense of the established process and the public welfare it promotes and is intended to protect. We hope the applicant will process in a manner that respects the process and results in a better outcome for all involved.”
According to Barnes, the Hermitage believes that as of right now they are in full compliance with Act 250 and intend to fully comply in the future. “As far as past violations are concerned, we understand that we may have gotten ahead of ourselves in some instances in the past for which we have taken corrective actions. In other instances where the DEC coordinator has indicated that a permit application may be required for certain activities that represent only minor or non-material changes to an approved project, we respectfully disagree. In a number of these instances the activities are either inherent in Act 250 permits previously issued by the commission or are not material changes to existing approved development.”