Parking at Stowe Mountain Resort had always been free until this ski season. But Vail Resorts, which owns and operates the resort, has imposed a daily parking fee of $30 at most of its lots.
The skiers aren’t happy — and neither are hikers trying to use a nearby lot, owned by the resort and leased to the state, now teeming with skiers.
An online petition demanding an end to the parking fee and to time restrictions at the Barnes Camp lot has so far drawn more than 1,600 signatures.
“Access to State lands should be free,” wrote Sara Lourie with her petition signature. “Access to Stowe's resort should not unfairly discriminate against locals/wealthy visitors.”
The parking fee was introduced to help deal with the flood of skiers who bought the Epic Pass, which offers buyers access to all Vail-owned mountains, including Stowe, Okemo and Mount Snow in Vermont, and 38 other ski areas around the globe, according to Vail Resorts.
The pass sold for $859 after Labor Day, according to Vail Resorts’ website, which is hundreds of dollars cheaper than what a standard Stowe-only season pass cost before Vail bought the resort.
Only the resort’s Toll House and Cross Country Center lots remain free of charge, according to its website.
The parking controversies now include the Barnes Camp, a visitor center with a parking area intended for people hiking into Smugglers’ Notch State Park. Vail suspected that skiers trying to avoid the $30 parking fee would leave their vehicles in the Barnes Camp lot, according to Stowe Resort General Manager Bobby Murphy, who discussed it in a Nov. 28 meeting. Rather than expand the $30 fee to the Barnes Camp lot, Vail imposed a 90-minute time limit there.
Alan Kovacs, who has been skiing and hiking at Stowe since the 1970s, thinks the time limit at Barnes Camp is restricting recreation access, particularly for hikers headed into the Smugglers’ Notch area.
“A lot of our friends that my wife hikes with, they go into the Notch and it's not for 90 minutes, right?” Kovacs said.
The Barnes Camp parking lot sits less than half a mile from the entrance to the ski resort and has only a couple of dozen parking spaces, noted Julie Moore, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. Her agency is in charge of state parks, including Smugglers’ Notch State Park.
According to the Green Mountain Club’s website, the club, along with Stowe Mountain Resort, Lamoille County Planning Commission and Smugglers’ Notch State Park work to maintain Barnes Camp.
However, both the Barnes Camp visitors center and the parking lot are owned by Vail and leased to the state, according to Seth Jensen, deputy director of the Lamoille County Planning Commission.
That lease, which took effect in November 2002, allows Vail Resort to “use the parking facility for temporary, short-term, non-commercial purposes.”
Residents cry foul
Courtney Difiore, senior communications manager for the Vail Northeast region, said in an email that the company and the Agency of Natural Resources “agreed that implementing 90-minute parking at our Barnes Camp parking lot would allow turnover of parking spots so more people can recreate without those spots being held all day by resort skier and riders.”
But many Stowe residents suggest the new time limit is adding to parking frustrations and traffic congestion.
Kovacs, a retired lawyer, helped organize the online petition against the new parking plan. It says the organizers believe it “is not a well-designed solution to traffic along Route 108 (the Mountain Road leading to the resort) and in Stowe during the winter.”
The petition calls on Vail to stop charging parking fees at Mount Mansfield and asks the state to prohibit such fees.
“The parking fee at Mt. Mansfield is designed to cater towards those who only make a few trips per year,” the petition states. “The financial burden of their parking plan puts a disproportionate expense on those who have invested in living here with a goal of frequently using the resort & the Notch.”
Many people signing the petition point to concerns around equity of access and frustration with prices as reasons to challenge the new policies.
“The new parking pay plan exploits residents who go for a few hours in the mornings on the weekends,” wrote Chris Stabile, under his reason for signing the petition.
Secretary Moore acknowledged the concerns. “In turning to charge for parking at the resort, I think everyone anticipated it will put additional pressure on the few spots that are available at Barnes Camp and everyone appreciates that those are spots generally used by the public seeking to recreate (on) state-owned lands,” she said.
The agency has conveyed to Vail its concerns about the paid parking program, according to Moore.
As the ski season progresses, Vail has been talking optimistically about parking and traffic at Stowe Mountain Resort.
“Early signs point to positive impacts of our resort parking policy, with faster traffic patterns up to the resort and no back up of traffic into the village — even on the busiest of holidays. There’s also early data showing an uptick in public transportation use and those opting to carpool,” Difiore said in an email.
Difiori noted that skiers can avoid the parking fee by taking the Stowe Mountain Shuttle, a bus that runs up and down the Mountain Road. Lift tickets are not required to ride the shuttle, according to Difiore.
Additionally, some parking lots are free daily after 2 p.m. and all day Monday through Thursday, according to the resort’s website. The Toll House and Cross Country Center lots remain free of charge at all times. Parking is also free for cars arriving with at least four occupants.
Beyond Mountain Road
While parking at and near the mountain remains a focus for visitors and state agencies, the town government says the problem extends well beyond Mount Mansfield.
Town Manager Charles Safford said many other parts of Stowe experience traffic difficulty throughout the year, due in part to the popularity of the town.
“Moss Glen Falls immediately comes to mind,” Safford said. “Backcountry skiers trying to go from Nebraska Valley, Trapps … the Catamount Trail. We have a number of areas where we’re currently not positioned to accommodate the demand.”
The town government has hired Stantec, an engineering firm, to conduct a yearlong traffic and mobility study. Stowe has allocated $80,000 to the study, with the goal of using the data to address traffic congestion.
Stantec’s work includes assessing how parking at Stowe Mountain Resort affects traffic in the area. The study also will gather data about travel trends and patterns.
The study is expected to be completed this fall, according to Harry Shepard, the town public works director.
“It’s an issue for Stowe on how do we reach to accommodate people in a sustainable manner,” Safford said.
Want to stay on top of the latest business news? Sign up here to get a weekly email on all of VTDigger's reporting on local companies and economic trends. And check out our new Business section here.