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.
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.