BERLIN – The Mount Washington Cog Railway withdrew its site plan application to restore 110 feet of track and construct a new platform on the summit of Mount Washington at Wednesday’s meeting of the Coos County Planning Board.
The move came after the board indicated it would have to deny the application because it was not signed by the state of New Hampshire, which is the owner of the land. The Cog has a right-of-way easement across the property.
In a separate matter, the Cog was also told it must submit a site plan application for three lean-tos it has constructed on railway land at an elevation of approximately 4,000 feet.
The Cog is proposing to restore about 110 feet of track along with steel trestle and a new raised platform. While the Cog owns a 99-foot section of land from the base of the mountain to the summit, the land on the summit circle is owned by the state. When the planning board voted in May to accept the application as complete, Board Chair John Scarinza said the plans indicated the Cog was the owner of the land. Instead, they should have listed the Cog had a right-of-way. Cog Attorney Earl Duval admitted the mistake on the plans but said the issue had been raised at the May meeting.
Proceeding with the public hearing, Duval said the wooden trestle and track were removed in 2014 to allow the Cog to install a new switch and siding.
Duval said a new steel trestle, track, and platform would be built at their original location, extending beyond the doors of the Sherman Adams building. He said congestion in front of the Sherman Adams building makes it difficult and unsafe to load and unload Cog passengers. The new platform will be built so it is level with the floor of the coach, eliminating the need for steps and providing handicap access. He said the new trestle will be anchored to rock, allowing the Cog to secure trains at the summit despite the wind conditions.
Representing the Mount Washington Summit Road Company, Attorney Christopher Meier said the cog’s proposal would effectively crowd out other summit partners and keep that entire area for the exclusive commercial use of the railway.
“It would make congestion on the summit significantly worse,” Meier said.
He said the platform is an entirely new proposal and would block the area in which the Auto Road pulls its vans around for handicapped access. He said Mount Washington Observatory and others also use the area for parking. While the plans show a pedestrian walkway under the tracks, Meier said it would substantially degrade pedestrian access.
Meier said the project also lacks the necessary zoning permits. Noting the summit is in an “unusual area protected overlay district”, he said the project requires a conditional use permit.
But Planning Board consultant Tara Bamford said the Cog could apply for site plan but any approval would be conditional on obtaining the necessary zoning variance or permits.
N.H. Parks and Recreation Director Phil Bryce said he was not taking a position for or against the application. He said he recently met with Duval and Cog President Wayne Presby to discuss being able to get the state’s Snow Cat around the new platform. He said he appreciated the Cog’s willingness to work with the state to address its concerns. Bryce said parking on the summit is also a concern.
Board member Mike Waddell asked Bryce if the Cog’s easement was exclusive. Bryce replied that it a right to use the property for railway purposes and the state could grant other access as long as those uses do not interfere with the railway use.
Scarinza asked Bryce if the state was willing to sign the site plan application. Bryce said the need for the state to sign the application was new information. He said he could not sign off until he has fully reviewed the project with the N.H. Attorney General’s office.
“This is the summit of Mount Washington, nothing is simple,” observed Waddell.
Scarinza asked Duval if the Cog wanted to withdraw its application or preferred the board take a formal vote. After a brief break, Duval said the Cog preferred to withdraw the application. Scarinza suggested if they submit a new site plan application, the Cog should also apply at the same time for a conditional use permit with the zoning board. He said both processes can go on at the same time.
The board then discussed Duval’s memorandum on the three lean-to structures the Cog constructed trackside on its own land at approximately 4,000 feet.
At the May meeting, Scarinza said he believed the structures required site plan approval. He asked the Cog to either file an application or submit a written memo explaining why the railway felt site plan approval was not required.
Duval wrote he believes the lean-tos are allowed as primitive campsites without permit under the zoning ordinance for Coos County’s unincorporated places.
Waddell said he did not think the lean-tos met the definition of primitive campsite. The structures have picnic tables, fire pits, and port-a-potties. He said he believed, however, that the planning board would have approved them if the Cog had filed a site plan application.
Presby said they are designed to allow backcountry skiers to use as warming huts or to provide shelter from the wind. He said they are open to the public and are used by day hikers as well. Presby noted they are set on blocks and are not permanent structures.
The board voted to require the Cog to submit a site plan application for the lean-tos.