Opposition grows to hotel on highest peak in Northeastern US

CONCORD, N.H. — Environmentalists and hiking groups are stepping up a fight against a proposal to build a luxury hotel a mile from the summit of Mount Washington, complaining it would damage the fragile alpine ecology and destroy the scenic views.

The owners of a historic cog railway that runs up Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeastern U.S., are proposing a 25,000-square-foot (2323-square-meter) hotel, citing growing demand from tourists for accommodations near the top of the mountain.

Located at an elevation of 5,600 feet (1707 meters) on land abutting the railway, the 35-room hotel would be open from late April through November. It could be ready by July 3, 2019, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Mount Washington Cog Railway.

Since the proposal was announced in December, opposition has grown steadily, with petitions being signed and websites dedicated to stopping the project popping up. Among the concerns is that the hotel would tarnish views of the Presidential Range, the mountain's highest peaks that are named for U.S. presidents.

"To put a hotel in one of these beautiful areas along the Appalachian Trail would create an enormous impact on the scenic environment," said David Govatski, the president of a local NH Audubon chapter who has hiked the mountain more than 80 times. "It would destroy the view."

Mike Morin, the Northeast regional director of a mountain climbing group known as the Access Fund, said he has heard from scores of climbers across the Northeast worried about the hotel.

""The purpose of outdoor recreation is to escape some of the modern intrusions in life," Morin said. "Having a hotel in the middle of the alpine zone would change the character and experience of a day out on Mount Washington."

Other groups are concerned about the impact the hotel would have on the region's threatened plants, birds and butterflies. In a letter to the Coos County Planning Board, which will hear the request for variances required to build the hotel, a half dozen environmental groups noted that the mountain contains 40 plant species that are found nowhere else in the state, as well as two butterfly species found nowhere else in the world.

A formal proposal has yet to be submitted to the planning board.

Wayne Presby, president of the Mount Washington Railway Company, which runs the cog railway and whose property the hotel would be built, said it's needed to meet the growing demand from tourists. Currently, there is only limited space on the mountain for hikers to spend the night in Appalachian Mountain Club huts and groups to stay in Mount Washington Observatory. Both lack the amenities of a luxury hotel.

The 6,288-foot (1917-meter) Mount Washington has been attracting more tourists in New Hampshire's North Country since the loss of the Old Man of the Mountain, a granite profile and state symbol that crumbled in 2003. It draws over 300,000 guests annually.

"The state is not investing the money in facilities that are needed to serve the tourists that are coming here," Presby said, adding that he could have proposed building a hotel on land he owns on the summit but worried it would block the view from the observatory.

He also dismissed building a hotel farther down, saying that isn't where the demand is. A different company, the Mount Washington Summit Road Co., has proposed a three-story, 68-room hotel at the base of the mountain near Pinkham Notch. It is slated to open next year.

Presby also downplayed the environmental impact of his hotel. Not only would it cover a narrow patch of land along the railroad, he said, but it would also join a long list of infrastructure projects on the mountain, including the observatory and a fuel depot.

"It will probably be the nicest looking facility up there," he said.

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