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The board of the Los Alamos Ski Club has called a special meeting for Tuesday to outline their recommendation for transferring the Pajarito Mountain Ski Area to Los Alamos County.
The decision to recommend dissolution of the club was not made lightly. The board considered several options before voting unanimously to recommend transitioning all the clubs assets to the county. President Philip Rae intends to fully inform the membership about those options on Tuesday.
The meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Crossroads Bible Church.
“What we are seeking is a clear mandate from the membership that this is a path forward that they are willing to explore,” Rae said.
The decision was driven by several years of drought. This year staff was able to use snowmaking equipment to open the beginners’ hill for a short time during the holidays, but the mountain has been “waiting for snow” ever since.
“It’s certainly making it challenging, and without having Christmas two years in a row, and very limited skiing, it’s been a financial impact on the ski area that is significant,” said Pajarito Mountain General Manager Tom Long.
“So we’re looking for alternative ways to be able to continue providing skiing for the local community. This just seemed like the most prudent and win/win for everybody, and something that could probably happen in a timely fashion that would maybe insure skiing for the community.
Pajarito Mountain was developed by the ski club in the late 1950s. The ski hill opened on acreage donated by the Atomic Energy Commission. The club now owns approximately 800 acres — accumulated through trade and land purchases — with 750 acres developed for skiing.
The initial parcel donated by the AEC provides some assurances skiing will continue, since the land was donated specifically for that purpose.
“The gist of it was that the public should have unfettered access for skiing purposes, and if that could no longer occur, then the land should be returned to what is now the Department of Energy,” Rae said.
But Rae pointed out that redefining the land for other purposes is not an insurmountable obstacle.
“The precedent, as we understand it — for instance, in Rendija Canyon — is that DOE would probably not want the land and probably would donate it to the county,” Rae said. Rae also noted that it was likely the codicil could be removed through a legal process, although it would likely be a lengthy process.
The board expects a strong turnout for Tuesday’s meeting, and is holding it at the Crossroads Bible Church in order to accommodate more people. The club has approximately 2,000 members, but a mail-in ballot usually receives just 200 to 250 responses.
“The first vote on Tuesday night will be a nonbinding mandate from the members that the board continue with their current efforts to allow skiing to continue in Los Alamos,” Rae said.
A vote in support of the plan will open the door for the county to invest the time and resources necessary to help council make an informed decision about whether to accept the transfer.
“For good reason, the county is worried about spending a lot of time and quite a lot of money exploring this possibility, only at a later stage to have the membership decline, so the county will have wasted that time and money,” Rae said.
“There would need to be follow up meetings and votes to actually enact such a move, and that would obviously require a lot more work ahead of time and also more information given to the membership to explain that we had reached that stage.”
If Tuesday’s vote is in favor of the motion, county staff will begin evaluating assets, potential liabilities and the impact accepting the transfer could have on the county.
“It’s not solely a revenue source. There are expenses, obviously, that we’d have to consider,” County Administrator Harry Burgess said.
Burgess noted that the county was in discussion with the club about economic development possibilities long before a transfer was considered. The two entities have also worked together to install fire suppression infrastructure on the mountain, which doubles as a water source for snowmaking at the ski hill.
The county has also requested capital improvement funding from this year’s legislature in order to install a reliable source of either potable or non-potable water on the mountain. Whether or not that request is approved will factor into the county’s decision.
“It would be to the deal’s advantage to know that there was some support for expanding that system, because it does factor into the overall operations up there, in addition to the firefighting benefits that it provides,” Burgess said.
The county has also initiated a land use study for the entire mountain.
“Pajarito Mountain is a major attraction, so we have to see how we can enhance the use of it,” said Economic Vitality Administrator Greg Fisher.
Among other things, the study will look at how economic development could be enhanced through the complimentary development, such as lodging or recreational facilities. A potable water source would be necessary for those types of uses.
Burgess pointed out another consideration.
“Economic development is often thought of as attracting new businesses, growing jobs. There’s an equally important aspect of retaining what we have. It’s often easier and cheaper to do so. We don’t want to lose what we have. Then we’re going the wrong direction,” Burgess said.
Burgess noted that economic benefits are not only derived from the operations on the ski hill but from the ancillary business from skiers, who spend money on such things as food and gas in Los Alamos.
“So there are a lot of reasons to want to retain the business, whether or not it would be county owned,” Burgess said.
Rae said that responses so far have been positive.
“There are a couple of people who are against, but the vast majority of the people have been actually very, very supportive,” Rae said. “I think everyone agrees that having a ski area in Los Alamos is what people want, and we’ll agree that if change has to happen, the change should be toward ensuring skiing continues.”
Rae is also encouraging members to attend the meeting.
“I think if people have a strong opinion or are open-minded about this that they should definitely attend, and get a chance to learn the details,” Rae said. "There’s quite a lot of detail that I will be giving in the meeting that explains the chronology and the logic behind what we’re trying to do. And it may well be that people’s minds are changed during the course of the meeting.”