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Summit County is seeking talks with Vail Resorts about 200 avalanche fences planned for a ridgeline above The Colony gated community



PARK CITY, Utah – Park City Mountain Resort is planning to install more than 200 avalanche fences to protect an access road leading to two home sites and a restaurant in The Colony gated community, prompting some Basin residents to decry what they say was a secretive approval process and the project’s impacts on the ridgeline and wildlife.

Summit County issued a low impact permit for the project in June and a building permit in March, at no time soliciting public input. The community development department issued the low impact permit without bringing the matter to the Snyderville Basin Planning Commission, though county code allows public hearings for those permits if staffers determine additional comment is needed.

Thomas Cooke, chair of the commission, said he would have preferred if the permit application had been brought before the panel.

“When this became sort of a thing that people were talking about, I wondered if perhaps as a planning commissioner, maybe I missed a meeting or something, because I don’t ever recall a proposal that had 215 avalanche fences,” he said in an interview with The Park Record. “… I learned about this project very much from things that I’ve heard from members of the public.”

County residents at two public meetings this week offered public comment, asking the Planning Commission and Summit County Council to stop the fences from being installed.

Summit County Manager Tom Fisher and Community Development Director Pat Putt said that county staffers would engage PCMR owner Vail Resorts in conversations to try to mitigate some of the impacts residents identified. With permits in hand, Vail Resorts does not appear to be under any obligation to change its plans.

A Vail Resorts representative indicated the company was open to further talks with county staff but declined to comment further.

The fencing is slated for four avalanche paths in the Dream Peak area of the Canyons Village side of Park City Mountain Resort above the Daybreak lift.

The fences themselves are rows of metal mesh panels three meters to four meters high and across, according to the permit. Each unit is bolted into the bedrock high up in avalanche paths where slides initiate, according to information submitted to Summit County with the application for the work.

Plans indicate the fences will be placed in rows near the ridgeline with about 1 1/2 feet between each panel.

The Planning Commission on Tuesday heard from one resident who said the fences would be visible from large swaths of the Snyderville Basin, while another man, a wildlife activist, said the panels would have to be 10 feet apart to allow safe passage for animals.

Jack Hutchinson, who identified himself as the former head of snow safety and ski patrol at what was then called The Canyons and a professional avalanche forecaster and educator, wrote in a letter to the chair of the Planning Commission that there are less costly and invasive solutions to prevent avalanches from impacting the road.

“In my professional experience, these fences will have permanent, disastrous impacts on wildlife, cause a year round ridgetop eyesore and have significant, long term construction impacts on the soil, erosion and vegetation,” Hutchinson wrote. “In my professional avalanche forecaster opinion, they are complete overkill for the scope and problem at hand, and there are far less-impactful and less costly ways to mitigate and manage the avalanche problems in MacDonald Draw. In the 20+ years of active avalanche forecasting and mitigation on the slopes in question, there has been one avalanche that impacted the future driveway/roadway.”

After commissioners heard the comments, Summit County deputy civil attorney Jami Brackin said the Planning Commission did not have jurisdiction over the issue and advised the officials not to discuss it.

Low impact permits may be appealed within 10 days of their issuance, which in this case was 10 months ago. There does not appear to be an official channel to challenge the permits.

Putt said he was not tempted to bring the permit to a public hearing and that his office determined the application met all the standards required of a low impact permit. He said he’s heard from people who are upset about the decision.

“People absolutely have the right to express their opinion on these things and, from their perspective, whether it was appropriate or not,” he said. “We deemed the application and the proposal consistent with the code.”

He added that when staffers were evaluating the permit, they considered the safety component of mitigating avalanches and the fact that the fences were part of a previous agreement between the landowners and Vail Resorts that was made when the road was planned.

County officials say the county processes 100 low impact permits a month and that it would be unwieldy, if not impossible, to require public comment for each.

Detractors point to the potential outsized effects of this project and say that the public should have been notified and invited to comment.

Hutchinson wrote that years of active mitigation work has taught safety professionals how avalanches slide in the area, and that devastatingly large slides can be, and have been, avoided with repeated triggering of smaller slides.

Seth Dromgoole, commenting at the Planning Commission meeting, indicated that the fencing was an extreme example of wealth entitlement, wherein millionaires want to buy homes in avalanche terrain but would not allow the access road to be closed for a short period while avalanche mitigation work was being done.