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

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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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Reader comments so far...

Wendy Brainerd (not verified)
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.

Northstar fan (not verified)
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.

A fellow journalist (not verified)
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.

An Aspen Grove ... (not verified)
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.

Anonymous (not verified)
Thank you, nicely said.

Anonymous (not verified)
Clueless

Anonymous (not verified)
What I meant to say is that "Biased is Clueless."

Alison Teal (not verified)
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.

Lorraine Veber (not verified)
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!

G Middleton (not verified)
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?

Anonymous (not verified)
I'm not sure why a judgment in favor of Aspen Grove would lead someone to believe that the article here is biased. I'm a condo owner, and while the water hasn't (yet) affected our unit, I can say that the fees for fighting the fight have been onerous. Now that there's a ruling, I am hoping that Northstar decides to cut their losses (and ours!) and fix the problem. It's clear they created the mess. I would love for them to acknowledge this and fix it. We love Aspen Grove - we love Northstar. But this is clearly a wrong that needs to be made right.

JS Hull (not verified)
We have owned property in this area for just over a year. We didn't realize the extent of the lawsuit at the time, but have to tell you how disheartened we are that Vail/East West Partners are being so irresponsible here. The damage is so clear and their denial is irresponsible. We are on the uphill portion of Aspen Grove and you can clearly see water seepage in the parking lot and in the surrounding areas every time we visit. It’s just so sad. Tahoe development is supposed to be about responsible building - not building with environmental consequences and property damage. There is a huge problem here with the developers and their denial.

Stacy Blair (not verified)
Thursday, December 20, 2012 Mr. Michael Johnson Community Development/Resource Agency Director for Placer Co. 565 West Lake Boulevard PO Box 1909, Tahoe City, CA 96145 (530) 581-6280, Fax (530) 581-6282 Community Development/Resource Agency Director for Placer Co. 3091 Country Center Drive, Suite 140  Auburn, CA 95603 (530) 745-3000, Fax (530) 745-3080 Internet Address: http://www.placer.ca.gov/planning   email: planning@placer.ca.gov mjohnson@placer.ca.gov Re: Vail/Northstar Expansion & Aspen Grove Development Dear Mr. Michael Johnson: I understand you are responsible for planning and directing all operations of the County's land development activities, including oversight of the Planning Department, the Building Department, the Engineering and Surveying Department, and the County's Code Enforcement team. I also understand that you are responsible for the County's General Plan and various Community Plans; the administration of the Subdivision, Zoning and Grading Ordinances; and the County's agricultural/land conservation programs. In addition to your role as Agency Director, you also serve as the County's Planning Director. Given your extensive job description, you must be aware of the continuing nightmare that exists for all of the homeowners of the Aspen Grove community at Northstar. I’m wondering if you were the one who approved the retention pond above our development back in 2004? It seems like it may have fallen under your job description. Clearly, installation of a retention pond just several yards above an 80 unit development doesn’t seem like a good idea. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out. I’m wondering further, aren’t there rules and regulations to keep people and/or large corporations from creating water trespasses over entire communities, ruining multiple properties, destroying the environment and then, not being required to fix it?  Isn’t this type of situation preventable, if the right processes are in place, sir?  So, fast forward, and here we are 8 years later, our properties are beat to hell, the environment is dead, and Vail/Northstar is trying to bankrupt our association by dragging out this lawsuit, year in, and year out. Worse yet, they refuse to stop the water trespass that exists over our property, even though a judge ordered them to do so. And now, they have the audacity to say that they want to “expand” the mountain. With all due respect, sir, this can’t actually be something you are considering, can it? At this point in time, as a homeowner in Aspen Grove, I am totally offended by even the “possibility” of a Vail/Northstar mountain expansion. This is a preposterous idea, and given all of the suffering caused by the negligent behavior from the first Vail/Northstar “expansion” in 2004, and quite possibly, because of you and your department’s lack of oversite, I totally oppose the idea of a Vail/Northstar expansion. Please forgive my frankness, but Aspen Grove is being screwed, and Placer County is sitting by watching.  What you should be doing is ensuring the Aspen Grove community that there will be no Vail/Northstar expansion and demanding from Vail/Northstar that they:  CORRECT THE WATER TRESPASS THEY CREATED AND FORGET AN EXPANSION ON THE MOUNTAIN UNTIL VAIL/NORTHSTAR ADHERES TO THE COURT’S DECISION AND COMPLIES WITH THE COUNTY RULES THAT PROVIDE THAT AN UPPER LANDOWNER MUST NOT CAUSE DAMAGE TO A LOWER LANDOWNER BY ANY WATER DIVERSION. The fact that the Vail/Northstar expansion is even being considered (in light of everything), makes me think that “someone is in someone else’s pocket.” Is there anyone at the Placer County level who will do the right thing or is everyone so in love with Vail/Northstar that they can’t see straight? Has anyone in your department been able to utter the word “NO?” Or perhaps someone is reaping financial gain or gift for giving Vail/Northstar every little thing they want. I have to wonder...and I know I’m not the only one, Mr. Johnson. You clearly have failed to protect my property and my neighbors’ properties from the reckless trespass of a large, “revenue building,” corporation. Perhaps you can get it right this time, 8 years later, by actually considering the hard working community of Aspen Grove and NOT GRANTING EVERYTHING AND ANYTHING to precious Vail/Northstar. They need to clean up the mess they made all over our Aspen Grove community. It was your responsibility back then and it is your responsibility today to prevent such tragedies, sir.  Think about it.  Stacy Blair (3173 AG) cc: Aspen Grove Homeowner’s Association

Anonymous (not verified)
We have been homeowners at Aspen Grove since 2002 and our unit looks out on the lower section of the Aspen Groves. Over the years we have seen this area change significantly, the first few seasons most of the water had dried up by June but now water has been flowing year round for many years. The mature Aspens are a significant benefit for us and the damage will take many, many decades to heal, once the excessive water is no longer diverted on to our property. We are appalled by the lack of any effort to even temporarily halt the excessive and concentrated water directed at Aspen Grove and the damage they have been causing for so many years. They have shown nothing but disdain for us, the County rules and now the Court order as well. The facts are completely on our side, in the judges tentative ruling sided with the association on all points. These are quotes directly from ruling: • There is little, if any dispute as to the underlying facts. • the court finds that the construction of the infiltration basin on the defendants’ uphill land, as well as the maintenance of the basin thereafter, was an unreasonable use of such land in relation to plaintiff’s adjoining real property • Defendants elected to locate the basin near the boundary line and a mere 60 feet from the nearest residential building on plaintiff’s downhill real property, when alternative sites were available. • No ground water level tests were performed at the site nor other appropriate (geotechnical) investigations were conducted before construction of the basin. The nature and extent of potential damage to the downhill landowner was not adequately considered, and the appreciable damage that has resulted was foreseeable. • Deficiencies in the construction of the basin as well as problems of maintenance or lack of maintenance of the basin since 2004. There did not appear to be any dispute as to such facts from defense counsel during closing argument. • Based on the evidence, the court finds that the infiltration basin, as part of defendants’ uphill water drainage system, was and is the proximate cause of the continuing drainage incurred by plaintiff on its downhill real property. • the evidence summarized above, supports the requisite elements of the cause of action of negligence • the court finds that plaintiff has met its burden of showing the element of irreparable harm • Under the circumstance, and considering the evidence and relevant factors, the court finds that the nuisance and trespass to plaintiffs real property as alleged in the complaint is continuous • For reasons stated, the court concludes that plaintiff is entitled to a permanent injunction to remove the subject infiltration basin and to restrain defendants from diverting any water from their uphill developed property onto plaintiffs adjoining real property Whoever posted the comment calling the article “insanely biased” is obvious a shill for a company that is a horrible neighbor.

Stacy (not verified)
Community Development/Resource Agency Director for Placer Co. Re: Vail/Northstar Expansion & Aspen Grove Development Dear Mr. Michael Johnson: I understand you are responsible for planning and directing all operations of the County's land development activities, including oversight of the Planning Department, the Building Department, the Engineering and Surveying Department, and the County's Code Enforcement team. I also understand that you are responsible for the County's General Plan and various Community Plans; the administration of the Subdivision, Zoning and Grading Ordinances; and the County's agricultural/land conservation programs. In addition to your role as Agency Director, you also serve as the County's Planning Director. Given your extensive job description, you must be aware of the continuing nightmare that exists for all of the homeowners of the Aspen Grove community at Northstar. I’m wondering if you were the one who approved the retention pond above our development back in 2004? It seems like it may have fallen under your job description. Clearly, installation of a retention pond just several yards above an 80 unit development doesn’t seem like a good idea. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out. I’m wondering further, aren’t there rules and regulations to keep people and/or large corporations from creating water trespasses over entire communities, ruining multiple properties, destroying the environment and then, not being required to fix it? Isn’t this type of situation preventable, if the right processes are in place, sir? So, fast forward, and here we are 8 years later, our properties are beat to hell, the environment is dead, and Vail/Northstar is trying to bankrupt our association by dragging out this lawsuit, year in, and year out. Worse yet, they refuse to stop the water trespass that exists over our property, even though a judge ordered them to do so. And now, they have the audacity to say that they want to “expand” the mountain. With all due respect, sir, this can’t actually be something you are considering, can it? At this point in time, as a homeowner in Aspen Grove, I am totally offended by even the “possibility” of a Vail/Northstar mountain expansion. This is a preposterous idea, and given all of the suffering caused by the negligent behavior from the first Vail/Northstar “expansion” in 2004, and quite possibly, because of you and your department’s lack of oversite, I totally oppose the idea of a Vail/Northstar expansion. Please forgive my frankness, but Aspen Grove is being screwed, and Placer County is sitting by watching. What you should be doing is ensuring the Aspen Grove community that there will be no Vail/Northstar expansion and demanding from Vail/Northstar that they: CORRECT THE WATER TRESPASS THEY CREATED AND FORGET AN EXPANSION ON THE MOUNTAIN UNTIL VAIL/NORTHSTAR ADHERES TO THE COURT’S DECISION AND COMPLIES WITH THE COUNTY RULES THAT PROVIDE THAT AN UPPER LANDOWNER MUST NOT CAUSE DAMAGE TO A LOWER LANDOWNER BY ANY WATER DIVERSION. The fact that the Vail/Northstar expansion is even being considered (in light of everything), makes me think that “someone is in someone else’s pocket.” Is there anyone at the Placer County level who will do the right thing or is everyone so in love with Vail/Northstar that they can’t see straight? Has anyone in your department been able to utter the word “NO?” Or perhaps someone is reaping financial gain or gift for giving Vail/Northstar every little thing they want. I have to wonder...and I know I’m not the only one, Mr. Johnson. You clearly have failed to protect my property and my neighbors’ properties from the reckless trespass of a large, “revenue building,” corporation. Perhaps you can get it right this time, 8 years later, by actually considering the hard working community of Aspen Grove and NOT GRANTING EVERYTHING AND ANYTHING to precious Vail/Northstar. They need to clean up the mess they made all over our Aspen Grove community. It was your responsibility back then and it is your responsibility today to prevent such tragedies, sir. Think about it. Stacy Blair cc: Aspen Grove Homeowner’s Association

Stacy (not verified)
Community Development/Resource Agency Director for Placer Co. Re: Vail/Northstar Expansion & Aspen Grove Development Dear Mr. Michael Johnson: I understand you are responsible for planning and directing all operations of the County's land development activities, including oversight of the Planning Department, the Building Department, the Engineering and Surveying Department, and the County's Code Enforcement team. I also understand that you are responsible for the County's General Plan and various Community Plans; the administration of the Subdivision, Zoning and Grading Ordinances; and the County's agricultural/land conservation programs. In addition to your role as Agency Director, you also serve as the County's Planning Director. Given your extensive job description, you must be aware of the continuing nightmare that exists for all of the homeowners of the Aspen Grove community at Northstar. I’m wondering if you were the one who approved the retention pond above our development back in 2004? It seems like it may have fallen under your job description. Clearly, installation of a retention pond just several yards above an 80 unit development doesn’t seem like a good idea. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out. I’m wondering further, aren’t there rules and regulations to keep people and/or large corporations from creating water trespasses over entire communities, ruining multiple properties, destroying the environment and then, not being required to fix it? Isn’t this type of situation preventable, if the right processes are in place, sir? So, fast forward, and here we are 8 years later, our properties are beat to hell, the environment is dead, and Vail/Northstar is trying to bankrupt our association by dragging out this lawsuit, year in, and year out. Worse yet, they refuse to stop the water trespass that exists over our property, even though a judge ordered them to do so. And now, they have the audacity to say that they want to “expand” the mountain. With all due respect, sir, this can’t actually be something you are considering, can it? At this point in time, as a homeowner in Aspen Grove, I am totally offended by even the “possibility” of a Vail/Northstar mountain expansion. This is a preposterous idea, and given all of the suffering caused by the negligent behavior from the first Vail/Northstar “expansion” in 2004, and quite possibly, because of you and your department’s lack of oversite, I totally oppose the idea of a Vail/Northstar expansion. Please forgive my frankness, but Aspen Grove is being screwed, and Placer County is sitting by watching. What you should be doing is ensuring the Aspen Grove community that there will be no Vail/Northstar expansion and demanding from Vail/Northstar that they: CORRECT THE WATER TRESPASS THEY CREATED AND FORGET AN EXPANSION ON THE MOUNTAIN UNTIL VAIL/NORTHSTAR ADHERES TO THE COURT’S DECISION AND COMPLIES WITH THE COUNTY RULES THAT PROVIDE THAT AN UPPER LANDOWNER MUST NOT CAUSE DAMAGE TO A LOWER LANDOWNER BY ANY WATER DIVERSION. The fact that the Vail/Northstar expansion is even being considered (in light of everything), makes me think that “someone is in someone else’s pocket.” Is there anyone at the Placer County level who will do the right thing or is everyone so in love with Vail/Northstar that they can’t see straight? Has anyone in your department been able to utter the word “NO?” Or perhaps someone is reaping financial gain or gift for giving Vail/Northstar every little thing they want. I have to wonder...and I know I’m not the only one, Mr. Johnson. You clearly have failed to protect my property and my neighbors’ properties from the reckless trespass of a large, “revenue building,” corporation. Perhaps you can get it right this time, 8 years later, by actually considering the hard working community of Aspen Grove and NOT GRANTING EVERYTHING AND ANYTHING to precious Vail/Northstar. They need to clean up the mess they made all over our Aspen Grove community. It was your responsibility back then and it is your responsibility today to prevent such tragedies, sir. Think about it. Stacy Blair cc: Aspen Grove Homeowner’s Association

LWP (not verified)
I have been an owner in Aspen Grove since the early 1990's. The damage to our property caused by Northstar/Vail/EastWest is beyond disappointing, it is negligent to the point of being criminal. Our community and our property values have literally crumbled before our eyes. This has been a case of David (Aspen Grove) versus Goliath (Northstar et al). Although they clearly feel they can outspend and outlast our efforts (and hence continue their flagrantly abusive behaviors), we are resolved as a community of neighbors to see the beauty of our neighborhood restored. We don’t have their marketing dollars (which they are using to try and cover the truth), but we have honesty, integrity, and truth on our side.

ashscott
This is a serious issue indeed. Houses and buildings should be well built with a strong foundation. Or else the structure will collapse. I cant imagine this will happen. If possible when locating real estate, check out the integrity foundation. No one wants to have a reclining home, right? But if this happens, ask for financial assistance to fix the dilemma right away.

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October 10, 2014