Hermitage Club and town's futures intertwined
WILMINGTON >> Delays on development for the Hermitage Club are no small matter here as the company grapples with Act 250 permitting issues.
"I'm speaking for myself but I don't think there's too much disagreement among the board that it's hard enough to get through Act 250 when you're trying to do a project of this size or even a smaller level of what could be termed 'economic development' or 'development of jobs' and 'development of prosperity' in an area. It's hard enough to get through Act 250 and the processes if everything went well," said Select Board member and Town Clerk Susie Haughwout, who read over deeds for the airport and other parcels sold off on July 29 by the company in hopes of quickening the state permitting process. "They (Hermitage Club) came in for the bifurcation request. They looked pretty clean to me. The corrected deeds are even clearer."
The company runs a private ski resort on the mountain. Plans to start building a 93-unit hotel there and expand a nearby airport this summer were put on hold when the District #2 Environment Commission requested more details on the projects contained in the Hermitage Club's permit application for a master plan. The company hoped it could make matters less complicated if it removed projects dealing with the Deerfield Valley Airport in Dover and the East Track, which is land it owned between the ski resort and the airport. Both properties were sold off at $500,000 apiece.
At a meeting Wednesday, Haughwout called the DEC's decision not to publish findings about the mountain not only "draconian, but Machiavellian."
"I don't always defend developers," she said. "But in this particular case, I think the state of Vermont has done a huge, bureaucratic overreach here."
In an interview, Haughwout told the Reformer an attorney for the Hermitage Club revised earlier versions of the deeds with the thinking that the DEC looked at the documents as though company founder Jim Barnes was holding onto development rights. She saw the changes as a way of clearing up the issue; only ingress and egress rights were kept.
It's her view that the state is "capriciously delaying" the project.
"They're looking at some crystal ball that the rest of us don't use. They're choking off the money," Haughwout said. "What really bothers me is I'm a public servant. So are they. I'm very aware of where my money comes from. I think people in state organizations should be, too. For whatever reasons they're delaying this, it seems incomprehensible to me. They ought to be a little concerned about the welfare of the valley. There are people waiting to be paid."
According to Haughwout, millions of dollars are owed for work and materials.
"The effect it's having on this valley right now is disastrous. I don't appreciate their (the state's) position," she said.
Brian Jurgens, of Jamesport, N.Y., purchased the East Track after 30 years of visiting the Deerfield Valley.
"We have been long time kind of seasonal residents up there. We just sold the house last April. We had in mind purchasing a piece of property and building a few houses," said Jurgens. "It was pretty good land for a pretty good price. We were just looking to build a few family houses and maybe build a few lots on it and that's about it."
On whether his family had plans to sell the property or any piece of it back to the Hermitage Club, Jurgens said, "Not at this time." He acknowledged a change in the deed since the original sale was processed but said he was not going to get into the details.
No plans for building or obtaining permits for the East Track have been scheduled just yet. The upcoming winter is out of the question.
"We're actually looking at a place to rent for this winter on another property then we'll take it from there," said Jurgens. "I'm at the height of my golf season right now. I run some family golf courses in Long Island. I haven't had much time to even get into this project that much."
Jurgens said he is not a developer nor a member of the Hermitage Club. He said he met Barnes in 1991 and remained friends. Both men were volunteering for the Deerfield Valley Stump Jumpers Snowmobile Club, an organization that maintains trail systems.
After a discussion last year on whether the company needed to alert the Select Board of any changes on the "glebe" land, a section of Haystack owned by the town, Hermitage Club attorney Bob Fisher came to the board on Wednesday night in search of signatures for a project involving expansion on a summit sales office, rescue building and two mountain cabins.
The glebe land refers to property originally designated for special uses. It's a rectangular shape in the northwest corner of Wilmington about a third of the way up Haystack, according to Haughwout.
"In this case, there's an application for a transient non-community public water system that will provide water from the well on the summit to the summit building to the mid-mountain cabin. And the application is for an unbuilt second mid-mountain cabin," Fisher said. "This is primarily a result of the well we drilled at the mid-mountain that failed."
Another source of water was needed and the new proposal was "the engineer's best solution," he said. Two wells already exist and a third will be built. Wastewater disposal is handled through the Cold Brook Fire District.
This project needs to go through separate approvals that are also necessary for the Hermitage Club's master plan permit. But the work could be done before that permit is obtained because water could be considered necessary for skiing uses under the glebe land lease.
"I know you're having a tough time with your Act 250 application. I'm a bit frustrated that there's money owed to the CBFD as I understand," Select Board Vice Chairman John Gannon said. "It's unlikely that the Hermitage will pay its property taxes by Aug. 19. And nothing's been done on the Hermitage fire agreement."
Upon 50 percent of completion on the new hotel that's being proposed, the company is expected to provide funds for a new fire truck. But Gannon was not concerned about that part yet.
Gannon accused the Hermitage Club of not acting as a good corporate citizen, saying the company has done nothing to identify potential new volunteers for the fire department. The agreement calls for the creation of incentives for joining as the department is in need of more members.
"I think so much of being the good corporate citizen depends on having our state permit processes work in an efficient manner. Maybe if you're elected," Fisher said to Gannon who's running for state representative, "you can take (that on)."
Fisher confirmed the debt with the fire district but said he did not know about the tax payment. So much of the fire agreement is "combined with the Act 250 process at this point that we've got to get that" permit and "then things will start flowing," he added.
"If you want to see the ski area opened or at least parts of it open then having the application to the state with regard to the water is a totally separate issue," Fisher said, later explaining that "the proposed findings with regard to the master plan are being filed. The state agencies are for the mountainside are for the most part — I don't want to put words entirely in their mouths — in agreement. That was the whole reason to sell the East Track and the airport."
Contact Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273.
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