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Tom Clyde: Right answer to wrong question

Tom Clyde: Right answer to wrong question

Tom Clyde
  

Park Record columnist Tom Clyde.

The earth shifted Wednesday night. The Park City Planning Commission voted to uphold a citizens’ appeal of the permit for the lift upgrades at Park City Mountain. The effect is to deny the permit. Resort management has already announced that they will not be able to install the lifts for the coming ski season. There just isn’t time. And, of course, as things now stand, there isn’t a permit. The options seem to be applying for a new conditional use permit under the code, which will take months, or filing an appeal to the District Court to litigate the issues. That could take years, and would be limited to the permit itself so it won’t solve the bigger issues.

We’re stuck with another of those zombie approvals from decades ago. Parking at the resort base has been a problem forever. It doesn’t meet code and probably never has. The old agreement was an attempt to paper over that, and provide a mechanism for modernizing the mountain facilities so the resort could maintain its competitive position, while at the same time, trying not to make the parking situation worse. Oh, and sticking a hotel on top of the parking lots in the process.

The proposal was to replace the Eagle lift with a new alignment and higher capacity to deal with the morning crush, and upgrade Silverlode to an 8-passenger behemoth to deal with terrible congestion in that area. It had a token parking mitigation effort—charging for parking (which converts PCMR’s parking problem into Fresh Market’s parking problem), and continuing to lease the school parking lots on weekends, but no meaningful effort at a satellite parking lot and shuttle buses. It was the least they could do. The old approval tried to address the overall operation with the concept of “comfortable carrying capacity.” It was not a hard cap, but is sort of cap-ish. Improvements that stay within the comfortable carrying capacity of 13,700 skiers are routine staff approvals. Improvements that would expand that number require full review. The commission decided this was an expansion of total capacity.



The zombie agreement didn’t anticipate where we are today. It didn’t anticipate the interconnection of PCMR and Canyons. It didn’t anticipate Epic Passes at all, let alone millions of them, or the population of Utah doubling, or skier numbers like we are routinely seeing.

For the first time in the history of Park City skiing, the planning commission has said “no” to resort upgrades. A ski town saying “no” to more skiing is a turning point. (Vail says the lifts would not increase capacity, just move it around better.) Of course it was not a comprehensive decision. The planning commission is stuck within the terms of the zombie approval, and lacks the tools to negotiate solutions to broader problems. The Planning Commission can’t commit City resources like buses and the tailings pond parking lot. It’s not their purview to negotiate the financial terms, like the staff condition that all paid-parking revenue had to be spent on parking mitigation. That all belongs with the City Council, though under the terms of the old approval, there isn’t clear path to opening new negotiations at all. What’s the penalty for exceeding comfortable carrying capacity?



It’s hard to know where this goes. It would be easy to dismiss the situation as a few activist residents fighting against progress. But it’s not. I have no idea how widely supported they are, but they are clearly not alone. Local frustration with the traffic, parking, and a severely damaged skier experience is widespread. Nobody seems to like where we are, let alone want more of it. These two lifts aren’t really the issue. They are merely the point of engagement.

It would have been great if this process had produced solutions. In other words, there needs to be a new operating plan that addresses where we are today (and 30 years later we will all criticize it as yet another zombie agreement made by a naïve local government who couldn’t predict the future). Instead, all that was really addressed was the narrow question of a building permit for two lifts. It feels like a right answer to a wrong question.

It’s a train wreck at the moment. You don’t buy ski lifts off the shelf. They are custom designed and manufactured. The lead time is nearly a year. So the new lifts have been designed, ordered, and presumably partly paid for. The initial parts of the lifts are stacked up in the parking lots right now. Permitted or not, work seems to have begun. That hardware doesn’t go back to the returns counter at Home Depot. It will have to be stored someplace, pending an approval that might not come.

This is obviously the beginning of the story and not the end. Turning down the lift permits doesn’t fix the broader problems, and there’s nothing in Vail’s way of doing business that suggests it will start a benevolent conversation about how they can modify the operation to enhance the quality of life for local residents. But Wednesday night was significant in Park City and in the ski industry generally. The interests of the ski resorts and the ski town have been on a more or less parallel track for 60 years. Wednesday, it became clear that they have diverged, and maybe completely derailed. It’s going to get interesting.

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