(Host) A half-mile hiking trail in Manchester is at the center of a debate about public access versus private ownership. The controversy is over whether a key condition in a 26-year-old Act 250 permit should still be enforced.
VPR’s Steve Zind reports:
(Zind) In 1979, the owner of the Equinox Hotel in Manchester applied for an Act 250 permit to pipe water from springs located on hotel land on Mount Equinox. One of the conditions of the permit required the owner to allow public access to hotel-owned land for passive uses like hiking and skiing.
Fourteen years after the permit was granted, the Equinox Hotel joined conservation groups to establish a protected preserve on 850 of the 950 acres of hotel land. An 11-mile trail system was marked out on the preserve and some adjoining hotel property. A half-mile stretch of trail, called “Flatlanders Pass,” is on hotel land adjacent to the preserve.
Now, Equinox owners want to close that trail and sell the sixteen-acre parcel land it crosses. The land is valued at close to one million dollars.
But there’s opposition to the plan. Opponents say the hotel can’t deny public access to any of the land included in the 1979 Act 250 permit. Hotel owners say they’ve greatly enhanced access to their land by establishing the preserve and the trail system. The hotel says those enhancements offset the loss of access to the sixteen acres.
(Michael Nawrath) “Well, you can’t buy your way into a permit by your generosity.”
(Zind) Michael Nawrath is the attorney for the Village of Manchester Planning Commission which opposes closing the parcel to the public. Nawrath says just because the hotel created the preserve on much of the land in the 1990s, shouldn’t affect access to hotel land not included in the preserve.
(Nawrath) “You certainly can’t consider that a voluntary act that the hotel undertook fourteen years later should be some limit on what property is affected.”
(Zind) Nawrath says generations of local residents have hiked on the Equinox trails long before the hotel owned the land, which gives them, in effect, squatter’s rights.
Elizabeth Boepple is the attorney for the owners of the Equinox Hotel. She says the trails were created in recent years by the hotel and conservation groups. And Boepple says what’s really at stake are the rights of private property owners.
(Boepple) “By simply allowing the public permission to use some of these trails, they’re therefore forever foreclosed from exercising the other private property rights with respect to that property. That’s the position the opponents have taken.”
(Zind) Last month the District 8 Environmental Commission agreed with the hotel that much has changed in the last twenty-six years and the public access requirement of the 1979 Act 250 permit shouldn’t be written in stone. The commission said, “If allowing access to some areas for some period of time can forever after mean all areas for all time, then private land owners might well close their borders. And much of what the public now enjoys would be devastatingly limited.”
While the commission has said the public access condition doesn’t have to be applied to the land the hotel wants to sell, it hasn’t said yet that it will lift the condition. Opponents are expected to make their case again this Thursday, when the commission will hold another hearing in Manchester to consider plans for the parcel. Those plans include the construction of an 11-bedroom home and that could raise additional objections.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.