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Town not ready to punch Snow King’s ticket but inch forward on some fronts

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – The Jackson Town Council managed to reach some consensus on what they would like to see in the base area of Snow King Mountain. Electeds discouraged Snow King on an added zipline, saying they would not allow it to terminate on public land. They also made a nonstarter of a gondola loading station that would bisect Phil Baux Park in any way.

A marathon of public meetings last week represented the public’s last chance to weigh in on Snow King’s master plan amendment. Both the town and county planning commissions have expressed their comments as has Parks and Rec on any development occurring in Phil Baux Park at the base of the resort.

It is now up to the council to approve a Planned Unit Development (PUD) to allow amendments to the Snow King Planned Resort District Master Plan. That cat-herding task has been slow-going for the council as the master plan includes numerous components Snow King owners would eventually like to add to the resort to improve financial viability including a zipline, expanded ski terrain and snowmaking capacity, a gondola lift, a summit restaurant/observatory, a mountain sports training facility and second sheet of ice, and other amenities.

Further complicating matters is a stalemate standoff of sorts as town leaders are reluctant to endorse any new development at Snow King until they know what the Forest Service will allow after its Environmental Analysis (EA).

One final fly in the ointment is a personality clash on the council. It’s no secret Jim Stanford has been the most outspoken faultfinder when it comes to Snow King. Combined with lame ducks Bob Lenz and Don Frank—who have largely supported Snow King owners—it has made for a few interesting exchanges as the hours of discussion lingered on at back-to-back-to-back meetings last week.

On parking, transportation

For his part, Stanford was not about to let Snow King skate on any part of its proposed master plan amendments including obscurities like the implications of light industrial use (proposed maintenance shop) at the edge of Aspen Cemetery. People paying their respects to departed loved ones don’t want to hear someone wailing away on a groomer track to get it realigned, for instance.

Stanford also questioned how Snow King was addressing parking and transportation concerns with all the new development.

“Beware of shifting parking to the public. Parking in the neighborhood is not an acceptable option. We’re deluding ourselves if we think that’s going to work,” Stanford said of Snow King’s supposition that existing parking would for the most part suffice in the immediate future. “The balance sheet of promises made and promises kept is unfortunately tilted in one direction. We should consider SKRMA contributing to START. Snow King has only bus stop on private property in all of Jackson, and maybe all of the county. We are going through expense and trouble to provide bus service directly to Snow King’s front door.”

On employee housing

With Snow King currently employing in the neighborhood of 120 workers, town electeds are concerned how additional employees generated by new development will be housed.

Stanford alleged Snow King once had employee housing but sold it off, which Planning Director Tyler Sinclair confirmed. Stanford also pointed out Snow King’s past transgressions concerning housing and wanted to make sure owners would be held responsible to provide employee housing under new, more onerous mitigation standards.

Don Frank defended Snow King, saying, “We are all sensitive about growth. These housing commitments here are a public benefit. They are so onerous I, for one, voted against them. This applicant is going to have to live under it. There are 120 families whose future’s hinge on the success of Snow King. It’s an economic engine.”

Mayor Pete Muldoon countered, “Employee housing is not a public benefit. It is required mitigation for additional impact.”

On a climbing gym and second ice rink

Frank says he, for one, is eager to see a mountain sports training facility that may include an indoor climbing wall. He also said the community wants a second sheet of ice. Frank took the opportunity to encourage useful negotiation.

“This is far from insurmountable. It’s a rational negotiation. It has weights and measures. It’s a cooperative not an antagonistic proposition,” Frank said.

Stanford said he was tired of the town always giving at the bargaining table and never getting. At last Thursday’s meeting he proposed a radical solution.

“You want to do what you want on public land, then buy it from us,” Stanford challenged Snow King. “If you want to use public property for private business gain. If you want to operate a for-profit climbing gym on public land, how about you make us an offer? Buy it all. Buy the park, buy the rink.”

Snow King VP and financial advisor Jeff Golightly said his group had never considered that.

Frank interrupted the conversation, stating, “Nobody here is in a position to offer to sell Phil Baux Park to anybody.”

On a gondola, zipline

None of the councilmembers were interested in a zipline, challenging Snow King that if they insisted on one it would have to land on Forest Service land higher up mid-mountain or on private land to the east.

Councilors also were not interested in a gondola landing in the middle of Phil Baux but could maybe live with is being very near the existing Cougar lift. When Snow King GM Ryan Stanley suggested they might could remove the Cougar lift entirely (possibly moving it to the backside of the mountain) and replace the landing area with a new gondola. He said once a gondola was in and people could get to the top in 8 minutes, they would probably not want to ride a chair lift that took 12 minutes to summit.

Stanford was incredulous at hearing this proposal.

“How is it through months of all these meetings that this is the first time we are hearing this? We are asked to consider yet another configuration in the eleventh hour that nobody has had a chance to consider. This is my frustration with a moving target. How were the people who were here the other night not given a chance to consider this, let alone a councilor?”

Stanley replied he was simply trying to be responsive to public feedback. “The short answer is we’ve done our very best to respond to commentary along the way,” he said. “We don’t have a playbook of alternate options. We just hear your commentary and offer other solutions.”

On sticking points like SKRMA and the USFS

Stanford continued his inquiry into SKRMA—the hazily-defined ownership group similar to an HOA that is supposed to be a collective voice of Snow King Mountain from the ski resort to private land owners at the base.

“Do we need to define the structure of SKRMA…of who they are now? Where are their bylaws, the minutes of their meetings? I haven’t seen anything,” Stanford complained. “We’ve missed an important opportunity. The ‘mother may I’ moment has passed. It’s in Forest Service hands now. As a cooperating agency we’ve given little input already or tacitly endorsed some things.”

With Golightly imploring the town to not put off decisions waiting on what the Forest Service will do (“Somebody has to go first,” he said), town councilman Frank agreed that some amenities like a zipline were likely to be approved by the USFS under the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act.

“The Forest Service is beholden to 330 million Americans. It’s outside of the purview of this council where the zipline lands,” Frank said. “I find it very disturbing we should be so arrogant that we should presume to subscribe to tell our citizens how to use our Forest Service lands when Congress has already told us what it thinks appropriate uses are.”

Stanford countered, “Those are uses the Forest Services may allow. It doesn’t mean they are mandated to approve them.”

“But it’s the Forest Service that is going to make those decisions,” Frank said.

Frank also pointed to the 400 public comments received by the Forest Service to date as being a good place to start. He said 59% of the comments were generally positive toward Snow King and what they wanted, 33% was negative, and 8% was neutral or undetermined.

“The public has been heard for four years. Ski resorts are a money-losing operation. That’s why we don’t have as many as we used to. Do we give [Snow King] permission to ask to succeed or do we keep hobbling the horse?” Frank asked.

Muldoon said, “We don’t know where that public comment came from and what exactly it said in detail. Further, it was addressed to the Forest Service, not us.”

Lenz urged the council to not quit Thursday afternoon without at least signing off on a letter to the Forest Service in support of Snow King’s master plan amendments.

“I think these people deserve to have the town council say yes [to certain elements like the observatory, summit restaurant, and zipline] and let the Forest Service decide from there,” Lenz said. “We owe it to these investors to make definitive decisions now and not wait. As a responsible town council, you have to send this letter.”

Golightly reminded the council it was the Snow King taking all the financial risks. If they planned for certain amenities and those were later denied by the Forest Service or the town, they would be out significant capital expenses.

“It’s a leap of faith on our part. It’s not even going to be the same five people sitting here when this is eventually decided. We are taking an enormous risk,” he said.

Stanford was not ready to budge much on approving anything last week.

“You are looking at millions that this community has already put up for the ski resort. Some of the things that have been [termed] ‘giving’ on the part of SKRMA are really just following through on the promises that were made 18 years ago,” he said. “And aside from the zipline, the other most contentious element for the citizens of the community has been the road going up the side of the mountain. We’ve heard from who many of us would agree is the dean on skiing terrain and topography and a stakeholder in all the discussions we’ve had about Snow King [Rod Newcomb] who has said it is a terrible idea. So, for us to give a blanket endorsement on this road I think would be poor foresight on our part.”

The council put off a complete decision until they could meet again in early December.

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