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Breckenridge Town Council weighs Peak 6 pros and cons

Citizens learn about the proposed Breckenridge Peak 6 expansion during a mid-July site visit.

Ski area expansion hearing fills town hall

By Bob Berwyn

BRECKENRIDGE — The proposed Peak 6 expansion at Breckenridge Ski Area is turning into a high country version of Goldilocks, with the new lift and trails being either too big, too small or just right, depending on who you listen to.

For White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams, who started a town council session on Peak 6 with a brief outline of the plan, the resort’s proposal to add 550 acres and a six-seat lift best meets the need to disperse crowds across the busy ski area — that’s why he chose it as the preferred alternative mid-way through an exhaustive environmental review process.

Fitzwilliams intro:

Public comment:

For some local business owners and high-end homeowner associations, the expansion can’t come soon enough.

“I fell in love with this place in 1971,” said 35-year ski shop owner and former town council member Greg Abernathy. “We were skiing over in Vail and it was crowded and rocky … the next day we came to Breckenridge and I skied the best mountain ever,” said, adding that the 17 inches of fresh snow overnight didn’t hurt his perception of the ski area.

Abernathy, representing the view of at least some local business owners, made it clear that he thinks the town is in the business of catering to skiers. Anything that improves the ski experience on the mountain benefits the the entire community, he suggested.

Abernathy and a couple of dozen other people spoke Tuesday afternoon during a town council work session geared toward helping the town develop its formal comments on the draft plan. They will be considered with all the other input the Forest Service gets before the formal comment period ends in late August. The project documents and information on commenting are online at breckenridgepeak6.com. More background at the Summit Voice Peak 6 page.

“It’s a big issue for this community,” said Mayor John Warner, acknowledging the standing-room only crowd and adding his own questions during a give-and-take exchange with Fitzwilliams.

Fitzwilliams defended the Forest Service process of using an outside contractor to compile the required required analysis — even if that contractor is paid by the resort.

“It’s just fodder for conspiracy theorists,” he said, explaining the agency uses a shadow team to proof the contractor’s work, and added that he would never sign a document that wouldn’t stand up to independent scrutiny. Yet at the same time he acknowledged that there is at least the appearance of impropriety in the arrangement.

While Fitzwilliams may dismiss any charges of impropriety, there are past examples that justify the concern — and it just so happens they involve the same consultant and the same resort, during the last major expansion at Breckenridge.

When SE Group prepared a draft study for Peak 7, then-district ranger Tere O’Rourke charged that the document was skewed in favor of the proponent. Additionally, O’Rourke documented several cases of inappropriate contact between resort representatives and field-level forest service experts working on the project.

But Breckenridge residents were the real focal point at Tuesday’s meeting, passionately voicing their opinions for or against the project in its various proposed shapes.

Many people said they would prefer no expansion at all, but would grudgingly support a scaled-back plan, presented in the draft study as Alternative 3.

Fitzwilliams said that version of the plan was developed in response to concerns voiced during the early scoping phase for Peak 6, including tree removal, lynx habitat and visual impacts from cutting new ski trails and building another lift above treeline.

Some residents like Rose Wentzell characterized the proposal as unwanted ski area sprawl.

“When is it going to stop?” she wanted to know, explaining that service industries in town are already having a hard time keeping up with the demand on peak days.

“The bottom line is, we need more terrain,” countered local Realtor Tom Day, adding that more terrain is the best way to disperse peak day crowding on the mountain.

Ben Brewer, another local Realtor, had different ideas. Brewer said he supported previous expansions, but now believes the resort is big enough.

“Peak 6 is a big mistake,” Brewer said.

Chris Canfield, with Team Breckenridge Sports Club, said local youth are being crowded off the mountain by increasing visitation, and that he support the expansion as a way of hopefully creating more opportunity for youth training at the ski area.

Although comments aren’t tabulated as votes in the process, sentiment against the expansion, or at least favoring the smaller version, easily outnumbered those in favor of the full-scale plan by at least two to one.

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10 Responses

  1. Alternative #2 is the way to go. It’s time has come.

    • Alternative 3 accommodates 300 MORE skiers than Alternative 2. It’s time to look at Alternative 3.

  2. I understand that some people just want new terrain to ski on, and that’s why they are in favor of it. At least that’s honest.

    But the “purpose and need” specified in the DEIS is illogical. The “take another Peak” campaign will insure larger crowds that won’t be able to ski on the new terrain on many days due to weather and snow conditions. Plus it’s a joke to label Pika as expert and claim the new terrain is going to be intermediate. I’d have more respect for this whole dog and pony show if they just admitted up front it’s about making money for Vail instead of coming up with these crackpot “reasons”.

  3. Fact of the matter – the ski area is the lifeblood of this community. The ski area expansion makes sense as the people will come, expansion or no. We need to be ready for them both on the ski hill and in the Town.

    • Based purely on statistics like skier density, the expansion is probably justified – if you ignore many other issues. But what happens when there’s no more room to expand?

      I think the resort, the community and the Forest Service (to some degree) have a responsibility to look a little farther ahead and try and develop a plan for managing visitation beyond the Peak 6 expansion. How will we deal with the added influx when I-70 is improved? What happens when Breckenridge Ski Area starts approaching 2 million skier visits?

      The Forest Service should insist that the EIS for THIS project includes some kind of look ahead. It’s irresponsible to encourage growth beyond what we can handle. We’re not doing ourselves, or our visitors, any favors.

  4. Yes, that was the rationale for all the previous expansions, and yet in my experience Breckenridge is more crowded than ever. The crowds will grow to overwhelm this latest expansion also. What then? The town is already unnavigable at peak times. Seems like the business model of expansion just keeps making things more and more crowded.

  5. There are specific things Vail Resorts could do to ease crowding on weekends and peak days, mostly related to ticket pricing. Blackout dates on some passes are a baby step in the right direction. A significantly discounted weekday-only pass would be a slightly bigger step.

    More drastic steps would include a meaningful cap on total skiers on the mountain, attached to some sort of financial disincentive for exceeding the cap, in other words they would have to pay if they go over a certain number, with the money earmarked for improvements that would specifically help with crowding.

    A couple of asides – there are some areas in SoCal that require advance purchase of tickets on Ticketmaster or Ticketron. That’s how they enforce the limit. They only sell a certain number of tickets.

    And until the 1960s, the Forest Service actually had some control over ticket prices. I don’t really advocate that, I don’t see what good it would do, but the agency is abdicating its responsibility to provide QUALITY recreational experiences on public lands by allowing resorts to continually jam more people into the same limited space.

    • Dan, I hear you, but in the scheme of things (20,000 people on the hill) does it really make a difference?

      • I absolutely agree Bob. I’m for Alternative 1, deep down, but realize that there must be compromise.

        I’d rather all the trees be left alone though.

  6. I wonder if the resorts didn’t open Pandora’s Box with the cheap season passes, it seems that it’s hard to limit people on the mountain when you have legions of Front Rangers with those passes. But it’s always harder to take away something than to not have it in the first place, so there’d be quite a hue and cry if they changed the system, I suspect….

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