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Crotched lights a glaring issue

Ski area seeks variance from zoning board for lights after 11

FRANCESTOWN — The Francestown Zoning Board postponed a hearing Thursday that could determine the future of nighttime skiing at Crotched Mountain ski area, saying the issue has a wide regional impact and that other towns should be allowed to weigh in.

Residents from neighboring Hancock to as far away as Nelson and Stoddard have complained that the glare from the lights have become a significant disruption, and that the ski area, owned by Peak Resorts, has failed to comply with a request from the Francestown Planning Board to add visors, or caps, to the lights in the year-old expansion. Over a year has passed since Crotched Mountain initially met with the Planning Board, and after many public complaints to the town over the last year, a public hearing was scheduled for June 18, but no representative from Crotched Mountain attended.

The Select Board then issued the ski area an official notice of violation for not addressing the light issue and gave Crotched Mountain a month to fix the lighting.

Crotched Mountain decided to apply for a variance for the lighting in recent weeks, contending it is complying with the national standard set for lighting in ski areas. Company officials also say nighttime skiing becomes more dangerous when lights are capped, and that without the lights Crotched may not be economically sustainable.

Crotched Mountain draws skiers and snowboarders from across the region, many of which go to the Midnight Madness events held on Fridays and Saturdays during the winter months, when the ski area is open until 3 a.m. But the town’s ordinance calls for outdoor lighting to be turned off or dimmed after 11 p.m., except for security purposes and in cases in which the activity extends beyond that time.

Thursday, Zoning Board Chair Silas Little said he initially sent letters to the abutting towns of Bennington, Deering, Greenfield, Hancock, as well as Antrim and the Southwest Regional Planning Commission . The only response to the letter came from Jesse Lazar, chair of the Antrim Planning Board, who said the board was in agreement that the variance application for the lights was a concern with regional impact.

At its meeting Thursday, the Francestown ZBA voted unanimously that Crotched Mountain’s variance application for lighting in its expanded ski area — which does not meet the town’s regulations for lighting — has regional impact. Little will now have to send letters to the above towns, as well as New Boston, Weare and Lyndeborough, notifying them of the case with regional impact, per state law, in order to give them a chance to participate in the hearing process.

According to Pat Terry, general manager at Crotched Mountain, the ski area met the national standard for ski area lighting, established by the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, when Crotched Mountain received conditional approval for the expansion of new trails on the mountain last year. Conditional approval, Terry said in an interview Monday, means that changes still need to be made before final approval is given. He said the lights were one of the remaining issues requiring some type of change before final approval, and that other issues including trail erosion have all been resolved. In regards to the lights erected during last year’s expansion, Terry said Francestown suggested implementing visors, or caps, to help eliminate glare. It was at this time that Terry said Crotched Mountain began its application for a variance with the town.

Terry said visors are commonly used on lights surrounding a sports stadium and that because a ski area is not comprised of horizontal terrain, the caps would not be beneficial to the high speed skiing that takes place on the elevated terrain. Terry said he worries about the caps preventing skiers from seeing all the contours of the mountain trails.

The question of whether Crotched Mountain could operate without staying open for Midnight Madness was raised at Thursday’s ZBA meeting. In an interview Monday, Terry said Crotched Mountain would not be a viable business to the community without Midnight Madness.

“It is a critical part of marketing and our identity,” Terry said. “There is a lot of competition [among ski areas] in this region and Midnight Madness is a huge part of that.”

Ted Leach of Hancock who said in an interview Monday he used to ski at Crotched Mountain frequently, said he thinks the ski area could function without the Midnight Madness. “If I was a teen in this area, I would be willing to drive up to Crotched for 6 p.m. and ski until 9 p.m.,” Leach said. “You don’t need to stay open until 3 a.m. I want to see [Crotched Mountain] succeed. It’s the best little mountain in the area.”

A young skier from Hancock, Brian Wilson , spoke twice at the meeting Thursday and advocated for the younger crowd of skiers. “The lights only stay on until 9 p.m. during the week, and most of the people I know are asleep by then if they’re not skiing,” he said.

Terry said he’s not sure of the exact steps that will follow if a variance for the lights is granted, except that he may need to go before the Francestown Planning Board one final time for approval before continuing to operate as normal. He said that if the application is denied he will look to have it reheard by the board, because lights are critical for the ski operation.

Charles Pyle, vice chair of the ZBA, said Monday the next ZBA meeting to address this variance application will be held Sept. 12 at 7:30 p.m. at the Town Offices.

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