Uncertainty clouds ski area's expansion

As the Mount Ashland ski area prepares to begin work on its long-awaited expansion, two unresolved issues could easily derail the plan.

Ski area managers and the city of Ashland still have not settled their disagreement over details of the expansion, for which work is scheduled to begin June 1. Opponents of the proposal also have asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to issue an injunction blocking any construction while the court considers their appeal of a lower-court decision that allowed the expansion to proceed.

"It's going to be interesting," said Bill Little, president of the Mount Ashland Association, the nonprofit organization that operates the ski area.

The ski area dropped out of mediation sessions with the city of Ashland before an agreement could be crafted for moving ahead with plans to clear 16 new ski trails, build two new chairlifts and add space for about 200 cars to the parking area. Little said the ski area ended mediation because its concessions were met by "increased demands" from city officials.

Ashland city administrator Martha Bennett took a different view of the closed-door meetings.

"Nothing the city's asked for has changed," she said.

Under the terms of mediation, parties can't discuss what transpired during the private, closed-door meetings.

Agreement is crucial because the city holds the operating permit for the ski area from the U.S. Forest Service and leases it to the nonprofit association. Since the city holds the permit, city officials contend they should have final approval of all details of the expansion plan.

Mount Ashland managers contend that their lease gives them full authority and responsibility for any and all expansion projects on the 7,500-foot mountain.

"It's between the city of Ashland and the Mt. Ashland Association," said Linda Duffy, ranger for the Siskiyou Mountains District of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

Little and Bennett at least agree on the three areas of contention. The city has asked the ski area to provide funds to restore the landscape should it cease operations; produce a business plan; and develop a quality review procedure to minimize environmental disturbance during construction.

It's the details of those issues that seem to have caused mediation to break down. Little said city officials want the ski area to have a larger restoration fund than the $200,000 to $300,000 proposed by the U.S. Forest Service, but they have not proposed a specific figure.

Ashland Mayor John Morrison said part of the problem is that the Forest Service definition of restoration is "vague at best."

Morrison said the ski area's business plan doesn't provide the information city officials want.

"It's a two-page listing of assets," he said. "What we're looking for is more than we got."

Morrison's predecessor in the mayor's chair, Alan DeBoer, said the business plan is more than adequate.

"I run a pretty big business," said DeBoer, who owns an Ashland car dealership. "Our business plan is less than what Mount Ashland has given the council."

DeBoer, a former member of the Mt. Ashland Association board, recalled that the city was asked to take the permit to operate the ski area during the 1992 fundraising campaign that made the ski area publicly owned. At that time, he said, no one anticipated city involvement in the management or expansion of the ski area.

DeBoer asked the council during its May 15 meeting to reject a proposal to spend as much as $75,000 for legal fees related to the ski area, but the council approved the expenditure.

"The city of Ashland has no business being in the middle of this," he said in a telephone interview.

Little said the ski area offered to hire a soil scientist to resolve construction concerns. Bennett said the city wanted a more "collaborative" relationship with the ski area during construction.

"They wanted to hire their own expert and that should be good enough for us," she said.

Meanwhile, three environmental groups that oppose the expansion hope the 9th Circuit Court will grant an injunction halting any work on the mountain while their appeal makes its way through the court. People familiar with the court have suggested an appeal could take two years.

"The court's going to be issuing a decision on our motion for an injunction at some point," said Marianne Dugan, the appellants' attorney. "They know the June 1 date. Beyond that I can't tell you anything."

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail:bkettler@mailtribune.com

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