Editorial: Economic development can be bittersweet

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At times the relationship between Hermitage Club and the town of Wilmington seems bittersweet.

The sweet part, of course, is the economic development the private ski resort at Haystack Mountain is bringing to the Deerfield Valley. The company has been on a buying, building and renovation spree for the last few years as it works to increase membership by offering more lodging and recreation.

The goal, according to engineer Bob Harrington, is to have constant activity and programming for members and guests. He said the club's limit is 1,500 members. At last count the ski resort hadn't even reached the half-way mark, so the potential for more growth is promising.

"I think we're at 625 now," Harrington said in July. "We don't have nearly enough houses. That's why you're going to see the draw to the valley, not just the valley, southern Vermont."

Purchases over the past couple years include the Vermont House, the White House Inn, the Snow Goose Inn, the Inn at Sawmill Farm, the Brook Bound Lodge, the Horizon Inn and the Nordic Hills Lodge. And with each purchase the Hermitage Club has invested heavily in renovating and sprucing up the properties to attract a high-end clientele to the region.

In fact, Hermitage Club has been listed as the fastest growing company in Vermont for the past two years, according to Inc. Magazine, and that trend is expected to continue.

Moreover, all of that economic activity is having a positive ripple effect throughout the valley. Downtown Wilmington, which was in a state of decline even before Tropic Storm Irene wreaked havoc four years ago, has seen a noticeable rebirth. New restaurants and retail shops are opening up and existing businesses are making improvements to their properties.

Much of the credit for that rebirth goes to economic development groups like downtown organization Wilmington Works and the town's own revitalization efforts. But would these new businesses being willing to make that investment if they did not see the future potential offered by the growing membership and activity from the Hermitage Club?

As Wilmington Zoning Administrator Craig Ohlson said back in July, "Obviously what the Hermitage Club is doing up valley is a good thing. I think that helps considerably." But with so much growth happening so quickly in the company's zeal for expansion, there is bound to be some contention between Hermitage Club and town and state officials along the way. Therein lies the bitter part.

In February the state filed suit against Hermitage Club for allegedly performing construction activities without required permits, failing to comply with existing permit conditions, altering a dam without authorization, and disturbing a significant wetland without approval.

The state and the company reached an agreement in April that required Hermitage to pay the state about $205,000 over six months.

Then, just last month Hermitage agreed to pay more than $72,000 in fines and restitution for damage to the Deerfield Ridge Snowmobile Trail caused by an excavator in 2012.

The latest controversy involves a 93-unit condominium hotel the company wants to build that would exceed the town's 35-foot height restriction by more than 40 feet. The town does not have a fire truck that reaches those heights, so an agreement was signed that requires the company to contribute $350,000 towards a ladder truck estimated to cost some $800,000.

But the town's Development Review Board does not feel that agreement goes far enough, and before granting a waiver for the height restriction added one more condition – that Hermitage Club also fund construction of a garage to house the new fire truck. The board worried about placing the cost of "the otherwise unnecessary fire truck" and the garage on the taxpayers.

That certainly is a legitimate concern, and it raises two important questions: Why didn't town officials think of that? And why wasn't the DRB included in those initial negotiations with the company?

Not surprisingly, Hermitage Club, which believes it negotiated with the town in good faith, is now appealing the DRB decision to Vermont's Environmental Court. And once again the DRB is being left out of the picture – the Selectboard has been named as an interested party in the appeal, but not the DRB.

We can't wait to see how this one plays out.


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