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Charlemont Planning Board OKs mountain coaster

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CHARLEMONT — Berkshire East Ski Resort is on track to install the longest mountain coaster ride in North America, now that the Planning Board has unanimously approved a special permit for the new attraction at the ski area/canopy tour facility.

The total, mile-long galvanized steel track includes a short climb from the base of the ski area up to a crest, with a 3,775-foot-long, winding descent down a hillside, where there are no ski trails. The proposed 30 two-seater coaster carts travel the galvanized steel tracks on wheels made out of the same material as Rollerblade wheels, so the ride is quiet. The cars are able to travel up to speeds of 27 mph — which feels much faster to passengers in the open carts.

“It’s literally the most fun thing I’ve ever done,” said James Schaefer, a co-owner of the family-run business. “We’ve tested it extensively, and it’s really going to be good for the town,” he told the Planning Board Thursday night.

The carts are pulled to the crest with a wire that disengages before the cart travels downward. The passengers wear seat belts, but if they unbuckle them, the cart stops automatically. Also, there is automatic braking if the cart in front stops.

“This is a true collision-avoidance system,” said co-owner Jon Schaefer.

Jon Schaefer said he’s wanted to install a mountain coaster for about five years, but Berkshire East has been busy with other projects — the wind turbine and solar array that generate enough power to run all the equipment, installing the zip-lines for the canopy tours, and building a large lodge extension, which is still under construction.

“We want this to be a primary portion of our business,” he said of the coaster. “It will be run year-round.”

He said the track will be installed in a nice “out-of-the-way spot. It’s unusable terrain for anything else,” he said.

When asked if the project will include tree-clearing, Jon Schaefer said the plan is to clear a footprint at least 12-feet wide. The resort will be working with Tighe & Bond Engineering, which will be doing environmental work. He said the engineers will write an environmental site plan that is to be presented to the Conservation Commission. He said some dying beech trees will be removed, and that Berkshire East will be working with a forester to assess the health of the trees near the track.

“The goal is to keep it looking natural,” said Jon Schaefer. “We’re in the uphill/downhill business, so we want the hillside to look nice.”

The mountain coaster will be running year-round, but the Schaefers expect most of the demand will come May through October. He said the track area has lots of hemlock and little grass; weed-wackers could be used to keep vegetation from growing up under the tracks, which are at least two feet above the ground.

When asked about noise, the Shaefers said the loudest noise might come from people riding it, but that no voices could be louder than the snow-guns in the winter, or than the sounds of people in the summer, on rafts, river tubes or zip lines.

At least two more full-time employees would be hired to run the coaster, but more employees may be added if the coaster generates a lot more business at the resort. Also, the new coaster will mean additional town tax revenue.

The base of the ride will have some lighting, but all lights along the track will face downward, so as not to create light pollution. The Schaefers pointed out that summer use would mostly occur during the daytime, and in winter, the ski hill already has a lot of lights.

None of the dozen or so residents who attended Thursday’s hearing voiced any objections to the plan.

The Planning Board approved the special permit, but continued the meeting until Jan. 2 ­— after the holidays — to write up a required report of the approval process. A 21-day appeal period would begin after the board submits its report.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at: dbroncaccio@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

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