City wants to talk with Mt. Ashland again

Putting its power over the future of Mount Ashland on the table, the Ashland City Council gave City Administrator Martha Bennett authority to negotiate with the Mt. Ashland Association about giving the ski area the all-important special use permit.

"We're stuck in the middle of two sides that refuse to budge," said Councilor Russ Silbiger. "This is the first thing I've seen that may actually get us out of the middle of this."

The special use permit is the official permission from the U.S. Forest Service to operate a ski area on public lands. Recently, the permit has also acted as the city's lever to negotiate with the ski area about mitigating the effects of its expansion plans.

The city owns the permit, and leases it to Mt. Ashland for $1 a year. In 2005, the city asserted its right to work directly with the forest service about obtaining a timber sale permit for the expansion project. Subsequently, in December of 2006, Mt. Ashland asked the city to turn the special use permit over to them, so they could again negotiate directly with the Forest Service.

Councilor David Chapman, who proposed negotiating the transfer of the permit with Mt. Ashland at a continued council meeting on Wednesday afternoon, said his proposal is not related to a recent lawsuit filed by Mt. Ashland against the city. The lawsuit contends that the city is violating the lease by not allowing Mt. Ashland to deal with the forest service.

"It's time to seriously consider a transfer with Mt. Ashland," he said after proposing the motion, which passed 3-2. "We've been trying to discuss this since February."

Chapman and councilors Kate Jackson and Silbiger supported the motion, with councilors Alice Hardesty and Eric Navickas voting against it. Councilor Cate Hartzell left the meeting before Chapman brought up the topic.

"We're not closing doors," Jackson said. "We are trying to pry them open a little bit. I think it's time to change our path just slightly."

"What I see being proposed is a strategy that can yield a win/win solution," Mayor John Morrison added. "It offers an opportunity to protect our watershed by coming to an agreement."

Navickas said if the city relinquishes the permit, it will lose its authority over the headwaters of the Ashland Watershed, the source of the city's water.

"When we give up the SUP, we lose that power," he said. "It's not just about this one project."

Hardesty said she was willing to consider the matter, but did not want to do so at a meeting that didn't have the full council, given the contentious politics of the issue.

When the city council directed the forest service not to deal with Mt. Ashland, councilors believed the ski area may cut trees for its expansion project before a federal appeals court issued a decision on the merits of a temporary injunction. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals did issue a temporary injunction, but Mt. Ashland never complied with what the city council requested in exchange for dealing directly with the forest service.

The council wanted detailed restoration costs if the expansion goes belly up, a quality assurance/quality control team and a business plan for the expansion project. Some of those items were in Chapman's motion, but not the business plan. It also asked that the forest service "re-evaluate restoration and adjust the bonding requirement."

He said this tactic "will take the politics out of it. It will be technical people talking to technical people, not more politics."

Kim Clark, Mt. Ashland's general manager, was elated when he heard the news, saying, "Yee-hah. Here we go."

Clark expects the Mt. Ashland board of directors will select him to negotiate terms of the transfer with Bennett.

"It's aimed at staff working with staff," he said, adding that his next phone call was going to be to Bennett, to schedule a meeting.

Bennett said negotiations will not begin until at least Aug. 6, because she is going on vacation.

She said, "the council has delegated negotiating power to me." But added, "Everything that I might do has to come back before the council for approval."

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