Seven Springs fights lawsuit calling to keep Neals Run Road open in winter
A lawsuit seeking to force Seven Springs Mountain Resort and Saltlick Township to keep a public road open during winter would close three-fourths of the resort’s ski trails to its 13,000 season-pass holders, cost hundreds of jobs and result in the loss of millions in tax dollars, according to the resort’s attorney.
If Gabriel and Gloria Hudock of Canonsburg succeed in stopping the township from closing Neals Run Road from November through March, it could shut down the resort because most of its trails are on the mountain’s north face, attorney John R. Merinar of Bridgeport, W.Va., said in a court document opposing attempts to keep the road open as ski season nears.
“An injunction order(ing) the parties to keep Neals Run road free of snow-making and open equates to an order closing the north face side,” Merinar said in the legal brief filed this week in Fayette County. “If the north face side is closed, Seven Springs anticipates a sharp reduction in business, perhaps to the point that Seven Springs’ continued existence is threatened.”
Even so, attorneys for the Hudocks say, Seven Springs’ potential financial losses are not enough to justify closing a public road to benefit a private entity.
The Hudocks want a judge to order the resort to stop depositing artificial snow on Neals Run, which since the 1970s has been closed in winter. Describing an alternate route to their million-dollar second home as unreliable and treacherous, the couple want the township ordered to keep the road clear from Nov. 15 to April 1.
Pending the lawsuit’s resolution, the Hudocks want a preliminary injunction to stop the road closure in time for this winter’s ski season.
No one from Seven Springs or the township returned phone calls seeking comment.
In the court document, Merinar said 205 of the resort’s 280 skiable acres — comprising 73 percent of its skiable terrain — are on the mountain’s north face. If it’s closed to keep Neals Run Road open, nine ski trails that bisect it will be unusable, along with every other trail on that side of the mountain, because they are accessed via those nine.
About 13,000 skiers and snowboarders who purchased season passes for the upcoming season would be immediately impacted, according to Merinar, who noted 185,000 skiers visited the resort last season.
The resort would not be the only entity to face losses. Fewer skiers visiting the resort equates to fewer customers for other Laurel Highlands-area restaurants, hotels, bed-and-breakfasts and clothing shops, Merinar said.
In jeopardy are annual state sales tax revenues — Seven Springs last year paid $2.1 million — and school, occupancy, municipal and property taxes totaling $2 million, according to Merinar. Saltlick would lose additional funding in the form of an annual fee the resort pays for the road closure, which to date totals $497,248.
Hundreds of jobs would be lost, according to Merinar, along with the resort’s $7.7 million winter payroll. The resort’s year-round employee contingent is 490, but the figure burgeons in winter. The resort last ski season employed 1,533 people.
“Seven Springs has not had time to do an economic analysis, but conservatively, its harm is measured in tens of millions of dollars, and perhaps much more,” said Merinar in the legal brief. “More importantly, the injunction … would result in the potential loss of an anchor for families trying to make a living in the Laurel Highlands, the potential loss of an economic engine for the region, and the potential loss of a source of enjoyment and recreation for hundreds of thousands of people.”
Merinar said Gabriel Hudock, as a season ski-pass holder since 2007, was aware Neals Run closed in winter before he and his wife purchased property and built their second home in 2008.
“The Hudocks must have seen with their own eyes for a period of several years that Neals Run Road is closed each winter for snow-making and skiing,” Merinar said in the legal brief.
Merinar contends the Hudocks filed the lawsuit when the resort ended talks over granting a right of way for the Merinars to build another road to access their home. The talks stopped because the resort feared it would impact future development of nearby properties and encroached on land owned by the state and the Seven Springs Municipal Authority, according to Merinar.
The Hudocks’ attorneys, Nicholas D. Krawec and Kirk B. Burkley, said in a reply brief that the couple had no choice but to file the lawsuit when Seven Springs “rebuffed” their attempt to build another access road in lieu of closing Neals Run.
The Hudocks’ attorneys argued Seven Springs’ potential financial losses can’t be used to justify the road closure.
“Simply put, the law does not permit a public road to be used for purely private purpose, no matter how great Seven Springs believes its economic interest to be,” the attorneys said. “If Seven Springs’ argument is upheld, the precedent would have a long lasting and dangerous precedential impact in the Commonwealth, as it would disregard settled law in favor of a litigant’s private economic interests.”
Even if the road were deemed private, the resort could not dump manufactured snow on it because the Hudocks would then have a 25-foot-wide right of way to their property, their attorneys said. The Hudocks own seven additional undeveloped lots in a subdivision on Neals Run Road that was approved in 2012, according to their attorneys and Fayette County tax records.
The request for the preliminary injunction to keep the road open is under review by Judge Nancy Vernon, who as of Friday had not issued an order to grant, or deny, it.
Liz Zemba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or [email protected].