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South Face Village at Okemo receives Act 250 permit

$200 million project includes 208 residential units, two lifts, seven trails, a lodge

The proposed South Face Village at Okemo received an Act 250 permit on Sept. 13 for a ski-in and out residential development on Okemo Mountain's south side in Ludlow.

The permitted project includes 208 residential units and a base lodge as well as ski lifts and trails. The estimated cost is $200 million. The South Face development will be located on a portion of a 266.80-acre property on the southeast slope of Okemo Mountain off Trailside Road on the Miller and Carnes tracts.

Timber Creek at Okemo Number II, LLC and Okemo Limited Liability Company (the ski resort which will build the lifts and trails, install snowmaking, and operate the new skiing area, but will not pay for village construction) submitted an Act 250 application to the District #2 Environmental Commission based in Springfield in October 2012. The hearings and fact finding concluded in April 2013 with the last public input request regarding wetlands ending in August.

Act 250 is Vermont's pioneering land use and development control law. The Act 250 permit process considers a development's effect on a host of considerations from town and regional plans and growth to wildlife, aesthetics, and soils via ten statutory criteria. Some of the ten criteria have sub-criteria so the Commissioners are charged with giving a very thorough review to each Act 250 permit application.

The permit for the South Face Village at Okemo contains conditions that are mostly customary, and there were "no surprises," according to attorney Andrew Becker. Becker is VP Administration and General Counsel for the Rossi Group whose president Ted Rossi is the majority owner and main investor behind  Timber Creek at Okemo Number II.

Rossi, who has been skiing at Okemo Mountain since 1987, said that along with his family he is "attached to the area and excited about the project," noting it is "one of the premier family ski resorts in the country."

Both Rossi and Becker commented that it is unusual for a developer of such a large project to apply to Act 250 for the entire project rather than for phases of a master plan.

Becker commented that although the build-out may take 10 years, they decided "to plan, design, and engineer the entire project at once" so that they could be ready to build it when the economy turned around.

"Both the Town of Ludlow and the District #2 Act 250 Commission were thorough, professional, and courteous in our dealings. We have a great deal of respect for them and the process," Becker said.

South Face Village
The permitted South Face Village at Okemo consists of a 15-lot subdivision as well as 22 single-family units, 64 duplex units in 32 buildings, 120 townhouse units in 9 buildings, and two luxury units atop a base lodge for a total of 208 residential units and 64 buildings.

An 18,000-square-foot base lodge will include an 88-seat restaurant, restrooms, and retail shop that will be open to the public (ski-in-only access) as well as a private owners' area with lockers, pool, fitness center, recreation room, and meeting room. The top level of the South Village Base Lodge will have two penthouse units, Rossi said.

The proposed skiing area of about 22 acres includes two lifts and seven trails. The main lift will be a 2,600-foot fixed-grip quad extending from the new base lodge to the base of the South Face chair. A 1,500-foot secondary chairlift will primarily serve the homeowners for ski-in/out access in a manner similar to "the lower lift at Solitude," Rossi noted.

While South Face Village will be a private recreation community for owners and their guests, Okemo skiers and riders will be able to use the trails as well as the public portion of the base lodge via access from Okemo's existing South Face (lift and trails) area.

Similarly, homeowners will be able to access all the terrain at Okemo via the new lifts and Okemo's South Face Express Quad.
A unique feature of the project is that the energy-efficient buildings will be fabricated offsite, which will shorten the construction period. "They will be the most energy-efficient units," Rossi said, noting they will be "built by Bensonwood, a premier builder of post and beam homes."

Rossi noted that there will be substantial green space of 145 open acres. Bear mitigation took place via the green space, he said. The remaining acreage includes other protected wildlife areas constituting about 38 percent of the land with buildings and trails on another 30 percent.

There is no definitive timetable at this time, but Rossi said that they "hope to build the lifts for the 2014-15 season" and start infrastructure in 2015-16. The presale of homes could start in 2015 with the project build-out taking 10 or more years depending on market demand and the economy.

The developers worked with Ludlow Town Manager Frank Heald to reach an agreement to use the Village treatment plant for wastewater disposal, Rossi said, noting the plant has capacity not currently being used.

Others who have worked on project include: Architect Randall Walter, who works for Bensonwood, which has 
built homes in the Ludlow area; SE Group for site plan, subdivision maps and landscape architecture; VHB, Inc., civil engineering and hydrogeology; Stantec, traffic impact study; and Larry Slason, attorney for the developer.

Issues, conditions for permit
It should be noted that there was a renaming of the project from Upper Timber Creek to South Face Village at Okemo after the Act 250 application was made. The permit and findings therefore refer to the former project name of Timber Creek.

While the six-page permit did not contain any surprises for the Applicants, the 27-page document known as the Findings of Fact and Conclusions, which essentially shows how the Commission applied the Ten Criteria of Act 250 to the Applicants' project, highlighted two substantial issues, which the Commission thoroughly addressed in its deliberations.
They concerned Criteria 5 and 8, Traffic and Aesthetics, typically two of the most complex and important issues for developers in Vermont.

What was particularly significant under Criterion 5 - Traffic and 9(K) Impact on Pubic Investments (Roads & Highways) was the Commission's conclusion that the Applicants' proposed plans to "mitigate traffic impacts through a variety of demand management techniques, traffic management and defined traffic improvements" [all enumerated within the findings] would do much to "alleviate congestion and safety problems along the travel corridor as well as preserve capacity."

On that basis, the Commission rejected a recommendation by the Vermont Agency of Transportation that the "Applicants be responsible for a proportional share of future transportation improvements based on a corridor study plan yet to be conducted," stating, "We find this type of condition to be too open-ended."

Similarly, the Commission rejected the Southern Windsor Regional Planning Commission's proposal that would have required the Applicants to "pay for their fair share of developing a future corridor planning study," stating in part, "The Commission is not persuaded that such long-term corridor planning is the most beneficial or practical mitigation for an Applicant such as Timber Creek."

The following was illustrative of the panel's thinking and deliberations regarding Criterion 5: "The Commission concludes that, for a project such as Timber Creek, discrete and verifiable mitigation proposed by the Applicants and conditioned by this permit will best address congestion, safety, and preservation of the public's investment in the highway corridor."

Of interest regarding Criterion 8 - Aesthetics, the Commission found that there would be an adverse affect on the on the aesthetics or scenic or natural beauty of the area. Citing the undeveloped nature of the tract of land and the high elevation as not fitting the surroundings, the Commission noted it "will have an adverse aesthetic impact."

But in applying the Quechee Test, which is used as legal precedent to determine "undue adverse effect" in such cases, it concluded there would not be "an undue adverse effect."

In evaluating the factors set forth in the Quechee Test, the Commission found that: there was no violation of any scenic beauty standards for the property (since they don't exist); the development would not be shocking or offensive to the average person; and the Applicants had made efforts to minimize aesthetic impacts through the project's design and materials. The Commission also addressed this in part by requiring that plans for the homes be submitted for review and approval prior to construction.

Ted Reeves, P.E. and Okemo vice president and director of planning and real estate development, commented that he and Tim Mueller, Okemo's CEO and president, had been in discussions with the village developer for some time and were "pleased to see the project permitted."

While Okemo had been interested in developing the Miller Tract for homes and skiing since 1994 when Okemo developed its South Face skiing area, it wasn't economically feasible at that time. Okemo then moved in the direction of Jackson Gore in 1996 when property there became available to the resort. It offered an opportunity to develop another base village as well as steeper and more varied terrain and another learning area. Reeves noted that "Okemo still has the Jackson Gore Village to complete, including a conference center, commercial space and condominiums."

He also noted that he is optimistic that the economy is starting to turn around and that the timing for the South Face Village at Okemo project will be supported and well received by the family market that Okemo enjoys.

In addition to the construction jobs that will be offered over the 10-year duration of the South Face Village development, Reeves noted, "Jobs that will be created include additional lift attendants, snowmakers, food service positions, building maintenance workers, and housekeepers. This additional work force will be good for the local economy and the additional terrain will be nice for our guests," he added.