The Missoula County Commission on Thursday requested that the U.S. Forest Service offer 60-day public comment periods on future proposals for Holland Lake Lodge — including whether to grant a new special-use permit to Utah-based ski resort corporation POWDR — and asking that any future development at the site adhere to state and local land-use, building, water and shoreline regulations.
The letter, sent to Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele, stated: "The Missoula Board of County Commissioners continues to hear concerns from a diverse range of constituents regarding public engagement and regulatory review of proposed changes at Holland Lake Lodge. Many of the concerns have also expressed questions about whether proposed changes to Holland Lake Lodge are in the public interest.
"Based on the input we received, we believe a more transparent decision-making process and robust approach to public engagement would be beneficial."
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The letter asked the Forest Service to "incorporate a minimum 60-day public comment period as part of any consideration of the issuance or re-issuance of a Special Use Permit for Holland Lake Lodge," and for "any process that considers changes to ownership, management, site modifications or master plan review for Holland Lake Lodge." The letter also asked the agency to require any permit holder for Holland Lake Lodge to adhere to state and local regulations that "could include, but are not limited to, public health, water, wastewater, land use, building, shoreline, etc."
Developments on Forest Service land are generally not required to follow local development regulations unless the Forest Service voluntarily chooses to enforce such regulations.
Whether a new special-use permit should come under public review has become yet another point of contention in the saga of POWDR's deeply unpopular quest to drastically expand the historic lakeside lodge near Condon.
Earlier this year, POWDR, through a newly created subsidiary, applied for its own special-use permit to operate Holland Lake Lodge Inc. A special-use permit is the foundational document that allows a business to operate on public land. Such arrangements are common, including widespread use for ski areas and similar guest lodges in Montana and across the West.
POWDR's application for a new special-use permit came after two Hamilton-based attorneys released a legal memo last fall stating that the Forest Service should have terminated Holland Lake Lodge's existing special-use permit because the permit's terms clearly prohibit a change of ownership and/or control of the permitted business. POWDR President Justin Sibley and POWDR CEO Tim Brennwald have purchased a stake in Holland Lake Lodge Inc. The lodge company's primary business address was changed to POWDR's corporate headquarters in Park City, and a POWDR executive now owns the lodge's liquor license. Christian Wohlfeil — the longtime lodge owner who still holds a stake in the company — has stated that POWDR Vice President of Communications Stacey Hutchinson represents and speaks for Holland Lake Lodge.
Last week, the attorneys behind last fall's memo released a new memo arguing that Steele should be removed as the decision maker for Holland Lake Lodge because he violated federal ethics standards by admitting in internal emails that he was biased toward POWDR's proposal.
POWDR's initial proposal envisioned 32 new buildings — including a 28-room lodge, a restaurant and 26 cabins — and the removal of 10 structures around the lodge. As proposed, the expansion would have increased the size of the lodge's current special-use permit from 10.53 acres to about 15 acres. The Forest Service rejected POWDR's proposal in late November, but the company is free to submit another proposal and has indicated it will.
In March, The Center for Biological Diversity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Save Holland Lake threatened to sue the Forest Service after Steele, the forest supervisor, said that POWDR would be granted its own special-use permit for Holland Lake Lodge if the company simply shows it's capable of running the business. Steele wrote that "as long as (POWDR) is deemed financially and technically capable and is planning to meet the intent of the special use permit, a new permit is issued."
But federal law requires the Forest Service to consider public interest when deciding whether to grant POWDR a special-use permit, the groups stated, citing federal law stating that the agency must deny the proposal if it finds that "the proposed use would not be in the public interest." A denial on those grounds would have precedent, they noted: The Forest Service denied an expansion of Crested Butte Mountain Resort in Colorado, citing split public opinion and environmental concerns.
The groups also criticized Steele for amending the existing special-use permit to allow two wells to be drilled at the site, and for allowing a modular housing trailer to be placed on site despite not being allowed by the permit — all without public review. Both actions were related to POWDR's future development plans, as acknowledged by agency officials in internal communications obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, and by law should have been lumped in with a larger public process and analysis of the overall expansion.
The groups threatened to sue if the well permits were not revoked and if the modular home was not removed. In response, Steele revoked the amendment allowing the wells and ordered the modular housing removed. Swan District Ranger Chris Dowling gave POWDR a May 15 deadline to remove the housing.
As of Thursday, the modular housing was still at Holland Lake Lodge, according to photos provided to the Missoulian.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Steele amended Holland Lake Lodge Inc.'s special-use permit to allow modular housing on the site. In fact, the amendment pertained to drilling two wells on the site. The modular housing was allowed to be placed on site despite not being covered by the existing permit. The story has been updated.