Crotched lights

For the love of nature

“If you are lucky enough to live in the mountains, you are lucky enough!”

We who live in Francestown feel especially lucky to reside in a region with some of the most spectacular scenery in our state. Throughout the Monadnock region the towns are “…dotted with mountains, but Francestown has only one elevation that can be dignified by that name.” In the 19th century, old timers referred to Crotched Mountain as “Forked Mountain.”

For those of us who spend time outdoors throughout the year, there is absolutely no doubt that it is our rural character and the beauty of the many natural features of the Monadnock region which draw us to visit and/or reside in this area. The dark night sky, which for the most part is unimpeded by artificial light, as well as our pretty hills, valleys, rivers, lakes, streams and forests top the list among these features. But so too do our local ski areas and golf courses — albeit during very different seasons. To minimize the appeal of one form of recreation over another is to suggest that a few speak for all. And if one lives here long enough, we certainly know for a fact this is certainly not the case.

I don’t know for certain what and/or how far reaching the impact the lights at Crotched Mountain Ski & Ride truly have on anyone’s ability to see all that is out there in our region’s dark sky. Nor do I pretend to know all that amateur astronomers are able to see anywhere at different times of the year. Especially should they be lucky enough to have a built-in, 32-inch relay telescope and state of the art observatory with a 20-foot dome within their homes, as does Dr. Mario Motta, a resident of Gloucester, Mass., member of the Board of Directors of the International Dark Sky Association, author of a study of the health effects of light pollution, and the cardiologist who spoke of these at the ZBA meeting on Sept. 25.

But what I do know for certain is that our portion of the dark sky here in Francestown is unimpeded by the lights of Crotched Mountain’s ski area for the majority of the calendar year. I also know that each and every one of us can pick and choose our facts, statistics and research studies to support our position in order to grab the attention and sway the opinions of the audience we are addressing. For example, one might just as easily suggest that the 20 nights of Midnight Madness out of a full calendar year, which spans all four seasons, is so minimal as to be inconsequential. Or that the natural cloud cover and/or the illumination of a full moon may have a far greater impact on one’s ability to view the dark sky than the lights at the mountain. And I also know that unless one has the time or the inclination to further investigate the studies cited about light pollution, or to read the AMA review of these studies, one could absolutely infer from what was said at the ZBA meeting that there might be dire consequences to our health should the outdoor lights currently utilized at CMS&R continue to shine unimpeded. But no study I have reviewed about the adverse effects of outdoor lighting on our health even suggests this is the case.

We all know that the rates of each of the health effects mentioned by Dr. Motta have increased dramatically — but the failure to include the effects of heredity, our aging population, or our increasingly sedentary lifestyle due to our ever expanding use of technology to the point that it seems to be an extension of our person, is inexcusable. Add to this an unhealthy diet, as in not only what we eat but how much, plus a lack of daily exercise, especially outdoors under natural light, and we realize we have a recipe for increasing the risks to our health. But none of the health issues cited on Sept. 25 have any relevance to the issue of the outdoor lighting of the 2012 expansion at Crotched Mountain — or to outdoor lighting in general.

So where do we go from here in order to resolve this without clouding the issue by presenting irrelevant information? My suggestion is that we learn to share our night sky during the winter by doing all we can to minimize the impact of the lights without jeopardizing the safety of those who ski, ride, or work the slopes at night — or the business that has provided this opportunity to do all three for almost a decade. Because if we have learned nothing else from this public discourse, we now recognize that the issue of the lights cannot be resolved equitably until each of us has critically evaluated the information presented and realize how unique the lighting requirements are to this particular form of recreation considering the venue on which it occurs. And I would also hope that at this point, it would be understood by all who have paid attention, that the lighting utilized at a ski area cannot be compared to the “Friday Night Lights” of our region’s football stadiums and recreational facilities, or the lighting of our village streets, businesses, parking lots and residences.

For those of us who ski and/or ride at CMS&R midweek and during the day, but pass by the slopes at night, it is clear that the majority of guests utilize the slopes after school and/or work. And therefore I can only hope that I misunderstood the statement made by the ZBA chairman of Francestown when quoted in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript that to his “knowledge this variance application only concerns the expansion for the lights… (and that) before this there was night skiing and I don’t see why they wouldn’t be able to (operate) without the 2012 lights.”

It should be obvious for all who have a part in determining whether or not to grant this variance, that the expansion on which the lights in question are located provide access from the true summit to virtually every other trail on the mountain, and that they are essential to CMS&R’s continued and successful operation. Thus to suggest that the mountain operate at night without the “2012 lights” boggles my mind and I can only hope that the impact is clearly understood prior to “closing the receipt of evidence and beginning deliberation.”

We know, “Nancy Clanton was hired by the town to provide objective, critical analysis of the information gathered by Crotched Mountain’s lighting engineer, Vic Reno.” We also understand as was stated by the ZBA chairman that, “It’s sort of normal if you have a report you give it to the other side.” What some may not know is that it is the “other side” (Crotched Mountain), and not the town, which is paying for Clanton’s input. But even if this was not the case, one would expect that common courtesy and protocol would not only provide Crotched Mountain with Clanton’s report, but also the time necessary to review the report along with a thoughtful and thorough response to Clanton’s analysis. Therefore I think we can all agree that this process is not only “normal” but essential if all members of the ZBA are to have a better understanding of what is and is not possible for safely illuminating the expansion prior to its deliberation to decide whether or not the variance is to be granted.

And I sincerely doubt either party wants the timing of this review of evidence and the deliberation process to be impacted by either “the board members’ busy schedules” or because “it’s a fairly stressful time with conflict” in order “to get this thing decided.” Therefore given the complexity of this issue, and the timing of an eventual decision by the ZBA, it seems entirely reasonable to request that addressing any required changes which might be deemed necessary may have to wait until the 2013-2014 ski season is over.

It appears that the perception by a few who have voiced their concerns about the lights at Crotched Mountain is that this is “David vs. Goliath.” This perception couldn’t be further from the truth if one considers the economic benefits derived for all of us in the ConVal region due to the successful operation of the mountain over the past decade. These financial benefits not only include those employed by the company, but also each and every ancillary business or individual livelihood which depends on, or is supplemented by, those who ski and ride at our local ski resort. Even if one is not directly involved in any facet of our region’s tourist industry, the property taxes CMS&R pays, along with the families it draws to our region, should not be minimized when the enrollment of our schools is in decline, our property taxes are rising, and several businesses throughout the region have been forced to close their doors. Personally, I believe that to disregard the economic impact on the ConVal region while suggesting that the lights jeopardize its rural character is at best very short sighted — especially given that its fiscal viability is based on night skiing and the unique niche it has created via its 20 nights of Midnight Madness.

If one takes into consideration that this variance will set no precedent for future requests of this sort, and given that skiing and riding the slopes of Crotched Mountain at night is by its inherent nature a seasonal and self-limiting form of recreation, it appears that for the majority of residents here in Francestown and throughout the region, the issue of the lights is much ado about nothing. And lest we forget, the closure of its predecessor had a devastating impact on our local economy and many of our area’s businesses — and the blight which was left behind certainly did nothing to enhance the beauty of our rural area or the value of the residences of those most affected by their proximity to the ski area which closed in 1989.

We who call Francestown and the Monadnock region “home” realize how fortunate we are to live here; and most of us wouldn’t trade our grand old “forked mountain” for any of the better known and higher elevations or ski resorts in the Granite State. And thus it is my hope that everyone who has a stake in deciding the fate of the successful operation of our local ski area as it celebrates its 10th anniversary, as well as sustaining the beauty and rural nature of our region, will remember what they learned in kindergarten about: “playing fair, sharing everything, and living a balanced life.” Should we keep these simple rules in mind, I truly believe we can find a reasonable and practical solution to resolve the issue equitably so that all of us who are lucky enough to live in the mountains may continue to enjoy the many and diverse forms of recreation which our amazing mountain, our town, and our region afford each and every one of us.

Deb McGrath lives in Francestown.

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