Mt. Ashland offers to delay suit

The Mt. Ashland Association has offered to postpone its lawsuit against the city of Ashland for six months to allow more time for negotiations according to Mt. Ashland Ski Snowboard Resort General Manager Kim Clark.

The association made the offer on Tuesday morning to the city's outside lawyer on the case, who works for the law firm Harrang Long Gary Rudnick, Clark said.

The firm has offices in Eugene, Salem and Portland.

In July 2007, the association filed a lawsuit in Jackson County Circuit Court alleging the city had interfered in a proposed Mt. Ashland Ski Snowboard Resort expansion. The Ashland City Council had instructed the U.S. Forest Service to deal only with the city regarding a timber sale needed to start logging for the expansion.

The city of Ashland holds the Special Use Permit for the ski area and leases the ski area to the Mt. Ashland Association to operate.

Also in July 2007, a slim City Council majority authorized negotiations over a possible transfer of the Special Use Permit to the association. Those have been ongoing but have yet to yield results.

"We feel very positive about the attempts at negotiations," said Clark, explaining why the association has offered to postpone the lawsuit.

Additionally, legal depositions of city and Mt. Ashland officials are due to start soon, which would be expensive for both sides, he said.

Without a delay, a trial is scheduled to begin in July of this year.

Transferring the Special Use Permit to the association would absolve the city of its liability for restoring the mountain should the ski area go out of business and not have enough assets for restoration.

However, it is one of the only ways the city of Ashland can exert any control over the expansion, which is at the top of the Ashland Watershed, home of the city's drinking water supply.

City Administrator Martha Bennett said today that the city's outside lawyer sent an e-mail to her about Mt. Ashland Association's offer to delay the lawsuit, but she did not see it before the City Council met Tuesday night and authorized spending another $110,000 to defend the city. The council had previously authorized spending $50,000, bringing total possible city spending to $160,000.

If the city loses in a trial, it would have to pay the association's legal costs. The association would have to pay the city's costs if it loses.

The City Council will meet behind closed doors in an executive session Monday night to discuss the pros and cons of the Mt. Ashland Association's offer to delay the lawsuit, Bennett said.

She said the situation would have been better for the city if the association's board had decided to notify the judge on the case that it wants the lawsuit dismissed.

On the positive side, a delay could create more time to talk about a settlement. But the downside could be even more legal expense for the city if the lawsuit is delayed, negotiations fail and the city and the Mt. Ashland Association end up in court later, she said.

The city would need to continue paying for legal advice during negotiations because of the threat of the lawsuit, even if it is delayed, Bennett said.

The Mt. Ashland Association can unilaterally request dismissal of the case since it filed the lawsuit, but both the association and the city have to agree to a delay, she said.

Clark said the ski area has budgeted $120,000 this year for legal fees, which includes legal advice for day-to-day needs like liability releases, the litigation against the city and expenses related to another lawsuit filed by Ashland and state environmental groups. He declined to disclose how much the association has spent on just the lawsuit against the city.

The environmental groups won a delay on any expansion in September 2007 when the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled the Forest Service's environmental analysis of the expansion was insufficient. The Forest Service is conducting more studies.

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