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Dying Aspens, Waterlogged Condos, a Resort Village, and a Legal Battle

Bob Thornton gingerly steps over small streams, pooled water, and saturated mud until he reaches the thick trunk of a toppled aspen estimated to be a century old. All around him enormous fallen aspen trees lie scattered across the muddy meadow like giant white Lincoln Logs.

“They were all live trees when they came down,” Thornton says. “The roots just rotted off.”

Thornton and the many other residents of Aspen Grove condos were drawn to this Northstar property by its centerpiece — a majestic, old-growth stand of aspen with trunks twice the size of telephone poles. Today, the aspens are withering and falling to the ground, their rotted roots unable to keep the trees upright in the soggy soil. Some have fallen on condo buildings. Others have been chainsawed after arborists said the leaning trees were about to fall on their own.

Thornton and his neighbors say the trees are being drowned by water leaking into the property from a retention pond built during the Northstar Village construction, which started in 2004. Now, many of the younger trees are also dying, and a large portion of the meadow is underwater even in the middle of September during one of the driest years in recent memory. Across the parking lot, water seeps steadily from the hillside and dribbles down in tiny rivulets toward the asphalt.

The aspen die-off and the soaked hillside are just two symptoms of what Thornton and his property association say is a flood of underground water seeping down to their property, allegedly drowning firs and pine trees, rotting condo foundations, and eating away at their parking lot. Thornton, who bought his condo in 2003, said he could not see through the thick stand of aspens when he first moved into his condo. Now, scattered trunks and sickly trees leave wide breaks in the grove.

“These are all legacy trees, and they are all dead,” says Thornton. “My condo is right there,” he says, pointing across the waterlogged meadow, “so this is my view now — this log pile.”

As Thornton talks, a sump pump kicks on in the crawl space of an adjoining condo unit. The pump makes a steady whirring sound, followed by the gurgle of water streaming through a network of PVC pipes and black, corrugated plastic tubes running from the crawl space and out into the meadow. Water suddenly gushes from the end of the pipe.

The sump pump is one of three that Thornton says have been pumping as much as 5,000 gallons of water a day out of three condo crawl spaces. As Thornton continues speaking, the pump kicks on and off in a rhythmic cycle, governed by the amount of water seeping into the ground floor of the condo unit. The cinderblock foundation of the condo building where the pump is located is visibly corroded at its base.

Thornton is the president of the board of the Aspen Grove Condo Association, a neighborhood of 180 condo owners directly downslope from the Northstar Village. Over the last four years, the condo association has spent $2.5 million fighting to have Northstar Village developers and owners remove a retention pond built during the village construction. To fund the litigation, Thornton and his board have levied three separate assessments on the condo association’s property owners — totaling approximately $13,000 per condo owner. After years of amassing research, seeking expert opinions, and sitting through long days in the courtroom, the condo association got its first taste of legal victory on Oct. 15 — a tentative ruling from a Placer County Superior Court judge that said the Northstar Village owners and developers have to remove or re-locate the retention pond.

“The water seepage has significantly surcharged the natural groundwater levels on plaintiff’s real property in varying degrees and times on a seasonal basis and has not been effectively abated,” read the tentative ruling by Place County Superior Court Judge Lloyd Von Der Mehden.

Vail Resorts, which now owns Trimont Land Company, declined to comment on the litigation. Blake Riva, managing partner for East West Partners-Tahoe said the retention pond was designed and constructed correctly. East West Partners is both the developer of the Northstar Village and the management company of Northstar Mountain Properties.


Reader comments so far...

As a home owner in Northstar (not in Aspen Grove), I think it is an outrage that this condo group has had to wait this long and spend sooo much money to get this matter resolved. Northstar needs to step up to the plate right away.

I, too, am an owner at Northstar (not Aspen Grove), and agree that the runoff from the Village downhill to Aspen Grove must be repaired. Common sense tells us water flows down hill, and unfortunately, when the new Village was constructed, someone apparently made a mistake in not properly diverting the water. I hope Aspen Grove gets justice quickly, and I am saddened by the loss of the mature Aspens. All of the Aspens along Martis Creek are lovely in the fall, and I hope the Judge takes their loss to the public into account when awarding the damages. The facts are not biased. Clearly those huge Aspen trees were fine until after the Village construction. Mother nature does not lie, and the trees are really all the evidence you need.

The only quotes this reporter has used are accusing homeowners and one judge. There are zero scientific references that support the accusations they are making. He was likely paid by the homeowners association - or at least thats how his article appears. But hey, way to jump on the bandwagon on looking for news by trying to attack corporations. That's really original.

As a homeowner at Aspen Grove since before the construction of the Village, I can tell you that the facts recited in this article are the facts, and there are not a whole lot of countervailing ones - because the retention pond was improperly placed and improperly constructed from the get-go. Rather than locating the pond on the other side of the lower parking lot, where the run-off and seepage would have had to have been managed along Northstar Road, they build a huge rock-lined lake in porous soil directly above Aspen Grove and only a few yards from its upper buildings. Aspen Grove protested the construction plan warning that the planned pond was improperly placed and warned during construction that there was no barrier to prevent seepage into Aspen Grove. They did it anyway, and the seepage started. And it's not just the death of the old-growth aspens. We've seen the trail along Martis Creek turn into a year-round swamp in the section that intersects the retention-pond seepage. Bears have moved their habitats because their old homes are flooded. Along the path of the seepage, several buildings' foundations have shifted - buildings that saw absolutely NO shifting in the 30 years prior. The upper Silver Strike parking lot visibly shifted downhill along the path of the seepage and now has a small stream through the parking lot that was not there before. In winter, this little stream becomes a perpetual ice sheet, that needs to be salted/sanded constantly for safety, further impacting plant and animal life. Aspen Grove was built around lovely, existing mountain streams; the expansion of the Village, and especially the concentration of the Village run-off in a retention pond directly above Aspen Grove significantly changed the water-management plan that had worked very well for 30 years. These are not "biased" facts, they are the facts of the result of the retention pond seepage. It took a lot of years of legal tactics (including a year-long delay when East-West demanded new water testing that had to wait for the following spring melt), to take the matter to court, and after hearing ALL the facts over multiple days of trial and several other hearings, the court agreed. Thank goodness! It's taken years of failed negotiations and finally having to go to court to get a ruling requiring the problem to be fixed. And it will still be a long hard, road to get something that was not done properly from the moment of its conception fixed. This is not idle jabbing at corporations for publicity. It is just trying to get the owner of the property that has a huge leaking pond to stop inundating our homes with ground water that is shifting the side of the mountain and all of the pre-existing improvements that we have there.

Thank you, nicely said.


What I meant to say is that "Biased is Clueless."

Thank you for a passionate and articulate account of the water problem which condo owners at aspen grove face. The long term devastation of the landscape as well as the integrity of the foundations of the buildings is a serious issue and it is my hope that the courts will become more aggressive in supporting the rulings.

My father bought our condo on Aspen Grove when it was built and I have loved going there during all seasons for nealry 40 years. I love it so much I bought it from my father and now own the unit myself. My unit is one of the hardest hit from both a view of the Aspen Grove which is dying away AND my actual unit which has major damage to the underlying structure as it is just sitting in water now. Pretty soon I am going to need a canoe to get to my unit if something is not done. Thank you all for posting and ensuring the truth is told!

I am also an Aspen Grove owner and am saddened by the loss of these beautiful trees and shocked at the egregious behavior of the defendants. Instead of spending all their energy arguing and fighting, why don't they channel that energy into something positive and do the right thing?


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April 11, 2014