Saddleback Mountain Ski Resort, as shown in this 2015 file photo. At a public hearing Wednesday, the resort made its case for changes that would allow for a new mid-mountain lodge and solar farm. A decision may still be weeks or months off. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal file photo

DALLAS PLANTATION — If development here goes ahead, the Maine Appalachian Trail Club questioned the impact on views and Maine Audubon questioned the impact on birds during Arctaris Impact Fund’s public hearing Wednesday in front of the Land Use Planning Commission.

The new owner of Saddleback Mountain Ski Resort wants to change its Planned Development District to allow for a new sizeable solar farm and new mid-mountain lodge, projects it’s called “critical” in bringing the resort back.

“This mountain is an economic engine in the region, or has been,” said attorney Thomas Federle, representing Arctaris. “Taking ownership and opening a ski area in the western Maine mountains that has almost always under-performed economically is a very daunting challenge.”

Arctaris is looking to build a solar array covering up to 35 acres with up to an additional 10 acre clearing around it that will create a surplus of power for the energy-heavy resort.

Federle said the top three sites recommended by engineering consults were all passed over in favor of the northwest corner of the property to minimize environmental and visual impacts.

“You don’t see it until you’ve reached the summit of Saddleback, and then it’s within your viewshed as you traverse the AT to the Horn, which is about a mile-and-a-half to 2 miles,” he said. “Yes, this is going to change the view for a portion of the Appalachian Trail, but what is going to be seen is sort of the future — a smart way to generate power using the renewable resource of the sun. It’s not a marring of the landscape, it’s changing the landscape.”

Tony Barrett, chair of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club’s Landscape Protection Committee, said that while “we’re all very glad” to see Arctaris’ new investment, he encouraged the company to consider alternatives.

“A question to ask is would this 35-acre farm of reflective panels 3 miles away … become the dominant feature in this landscape?” Barrett asked. “The solar cells themselves are protected by a glass sheet at the top; even with anti-glare coating, there is reflection off those.”

Rezoning, he said, would change “a working forest to a commercial power generation enterprise.”

When Barrett asked if it was possible to build the array off-site, or like several Maine colleges, work with a developer to secure renewable power, Federle said it wasn’t.

“Those are institutions that have a grade-A investment rating; we are a ski area that’s been closed for five years,” Federle said. “Our ability to negotiate long-term power purchasing agreements are very different.”

Maine Audubon is concerned that Bicknell’s Thrush limited habitat will be disturbed by a new mid-mountain lodge at Saddleback Mountain Ski Resort. Photo courtesy Doug Hitchcox

Eliza Donoghue from Maine Audubon raised issues with the second proposed project, the mid-mountain lodge, and its impact on Bicknell’s Thrush, a “species of greatest conservation need” in Maine.

“They have one of the smallest breeding ranges of any American bird and that range includes Saddleback Mountain,” Donoghue said in written remarks. “The ridgelines and upper slope — the precise location of the proposed lodge — is a part of only three large contiguous areas suitable for the species in Maine, outside of Baxter State Park.”

Outside of habitat loss, she also expressed concerns about birds striking the lodge windows and “significant bird mortality.”

“We ultimately recommend that development not occur in this sensitive habitat,” she said. “However, should this project proceed, we recommend a number of design elements and material choices that can significantly reduce bird collisions. We’ve begun a conversation with the developers about these proven methods, including relatively basic things like screens, specially-designed glass that does not obstruct human view, and other architectural techniques that keep birds from mistaking windows for something else. We’re really happy that the petitioner has expressed enthusiasm for embracing these methods.”

Federle said they’re interested in exploring “opportunity for us to preserve and protect Bicknell’s Thrush habitat elsewhere within our ownership … We’re also exploring larger scale conservation easements, so there may be even greater opportunity.”

He said last month the up to 6,000-square-foot lodge is among the keys “to get to the number of skier visits annually that we need to be sustainable.”

After the nearly 90-minute public hearing, LUPC Senior Planner Tim Beaucage said the comment period on the proposed change runs until Oct. 26. The rebuttal period then runs until Nov. 2, after which time staff will draft a recommendation for the commissioners to consider.

A final decision could be either weeks or months off. If the changes to Saddleback’s plan are approved, Arctaris will need to come back in front of the LUPC for project approval.

Federle said the new high-speed lift is still on schedule and Saddleback remains set to reopen Dec. 15.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.