The battle over Mount Spokane Ski Area has progressed as slowly as melting snow, but recent legal developments have given the process a push.
A ruling this week from Olympia has given an arbitration panel at the center of the controversy what it needed to proceed: clear directions about what it must decide.
Along with that ruling, a lawsuit challenging the public development authority designed to run the ski area instead of the current operators has stalled.
Three arbitrators have been meeting to decide how much the Mt. Spokane Skiing Corp. has invested over the past two decades.
The panel needs to find out in order to give the Mount Spokane 2000 Study Group, made up of Spokane civic and business leaders, a dollar amount it must pay to buy out the longtime operator.
The study group and the ski company have feuded over the next 20-year concession for the past several years.
The state wants the study group to take over, and many skiers agree; the company, headed by Gregg Sowder, didn’t make many friends this ski season by running a truncated schedule and closing the area with 15 feet of snow still on the mountain.
The three panelists - one from the study group, one from the ski company and one selected by the two - will decide what on the mountain is part of Sowder’s investment, how much that equipment is worth, and how the study group ought to pay Sowder.
Study group attorney Duane Swinton said the details of when and how remain unclear. The panel will confer April 30 to decide a timetable to arrive at the figure. The study group wants an appraisal, which could take some time.
The arbitration panel was to have come up with the dollar amount by April 15. But the panel considered expanding its ruling power to address some of the issues that Sowder has raised in his lawsuit against the state and the study group.
The ruling restricts the panel to deciding the value of Sowder’s investment and how that will be paid off, a position favored by the Washington Parks and Recreation Commission, said Wayne McLaughlin, contracts manager in Olympia.
In an apparent nod for the study group, the suit challenging the legality of the public entity the study group has formed seems to be at a dead end.
Spokane attorney Stephen Eugster wanted to show that the public development authority the study group has created to run Mount Spokane was an improper mingling of government and private interests.
The public development authority cannot tax, but can sell bonds. Those bonds will be needed to pay off Sowder, whose stake in the area was appraised at $3.5 million in 1994. The study group maintains the amount is far less.
An appeals court affirmed a lower court ruling that let the development authority stand, said Ted Stiles, a Spokane attorney and spokesman for the study group.
Sowder’s lawsuit alleging that the whole concession process worked against him and should be declared invalid remains the biggest hurdle for getting new management at Mount Spokane.
In fact, Stiles said, even if the buyout issue is resolved, the lawsuit will likely prevent a change from taking place. The public development authority won’t be able to sell bonds with the suit hanging over the mountain, he said.
Unless things move very quickly, Sowder will likely run Mount Spokane next season while the courts settle the long battle. Sowder did not return calls to his home this week.
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