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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.
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