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One cold night last month, about 10 people gathered at the Squaw Valley home of Jonathan Kanter. There were no cheese and crackers passed around, or wine sipped. This was not a social event. The Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows residents were there to discuss only one thing — could their two valleys form a city as a way to exert control over the outcome of KSL Capital Partners’ plans to expand the Squaw Valley Village?
Their answer — we hope so.
This grassroots movement to control the future of Squaw Valley is one way residents are looking to fight the proposed development, which at over 100 acres, 1,000 residential units, and an indoor water park, locals say would forever alter the character of the Squaw Valley community, and beyond. While KSL has responded to public concerns by reducing building height and adding environmental restoration and community benefits to the plan, Placer County cautions that incorporation will come too late to affect the village project.
Peter Schweitzer has had a house in Squaw Valley for 12 years and is one of the residents leading the charge for incorporation. He laid out the reasons for seeking to form a new municipality.
“So the community has a voice in what occurs,” he said. “Right now we are disenfranchised, we are at the whim of the supervisors who want to grab revenue.”
Incorporation is not an easy task, however. The process requires that a minimum of 500 registered voters live in the proposed city limits, which is one reason why any town would need to include both Squaw and Alpine. Squaw just barely makes the cut with 563 registered voters, while Alpine only has 296. To jumpstart the legal process toward incorporation, a petition has to be signed by 25 percent of registered voters within the proposed area. Next, a comprehensive fiscal analysis must be completed. Based on what the two valleys generate on average in Transit Occupancy Tax — $3.1 million a year — plus Schwietzer’s estimation of what the two valleys’ more than 2,200 homeowners and condo owners pay in property taxes ($10 million) — not to mention what the ski area pays — the incorporation group believes a city of Squaw/Alpine could support itself.
“I am sure financially it’s viable because the tax base is so broad between Squaw and Alpine,” Schweitzer said.
“Truckee is a lot bigger and has more services, and hundreds of more miles of roads, and has a budget of $16 million, of which $5 million is for police. I think Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows would have a budget under $5 million.”
Nevertheless, at a Squaw Valley Property Owners Association meeting held on Jan. 26 to provide an update on the Squaw development, Placer County Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery told the audience of 230 people that incorporation would not affect the outcome of the project.
“For self-determination in the future, it’s a good idea to look into it,” she said. “But in terms of this project, after talking with LAFCO [Local Agency Formation Commission, the Placer County agency that oversees incorporation], it would not change this process, since the project goes forward under the rules it was submitted.”
But Schweitzer said there is a precedent for newly formed cities stopping or changing a development that was already underway. He cited the case of Goleta in Santa Barbara County. Although the city was created after the county had granted approval of a condominium project in 2002, the new city of Goleta refused to approve the project’s final map, a decision that was later upheld by the California Supreme Court.
Undeterred, the Squaw Valley group is planning some preliminary steps toward investigating incorporation. These include a voter registration drive in the two valleys and negotiations with consultants for an initial fiscal analysis, as well as discussions with attorneys about setting up a nonprofit organization to fund incorporation, talks with Placer County LAFCO officials, and getting the subject of incorporation on the Squaw Valley Municipal Advisory Council agenda.
After all the analysis and data gathering is complete, and LAFCO has approved incorporation, the issue must still be put before voters. Schweitzer estimates it could take 18 months to three years to incorporate, plenty of time to impact the village expansion project, especially if it gets tied up in court.
“It might take them [KSL] two to three years to get their entitlements; they haven’t even filed an EIR yet,” he said.
“There could be lawsuits from Sierra Watch.”
In the meantime, the Squaw Valley project is moving forward, although there have been changes made to reflect public criticisms. The heights of four buildings have been dropped, with the tallest building now eight stories high. It was previously 10.
“The number one objection to the project has been height, and we hear you,” Chevis Hosea, vice president of development for Squaw Valley Real Estate LLC, told the property owners association crowd. “We have taken 15 floors off the buildings.”
Hosea said tall buildings serve a purpose — they allow concentration of development on the valley floor, in an already disturbed area.
“This is not an on-mountain development; we are not sprawling on the mountain. That’s the reason for height,” he said. “In a mountain environment, vertical development is good; sprawl is bad.”
The reduction in building cuts down the number of total residential units over four phases from 1,295 to 1,093. In phase one, the 390 originally proposed units drop to 350.
The developers also took into consideration public demand for environmental and community improvements. The development now includes plans to restore Squaw Creek at a cost of $1.5 million. (According to Hosea, the Squaw Village original developer, Intrawest, only promised $100,000 for the creek). KSL will also create a meadowlands interpretive park, extend the current bike trail, and offer on-site employee housing.
A scale replica of the Squaw Valley development plan will be available for public viewing in the village around Feb. 14, Hosea said.
While the concerned residents continue to see incorporation as their best bet to influence the Squaw Valley development, Supervisor Montgomery offered the people at the property owners meeting a piece of advice gleaned from her experience both as a supervisor and as a Donner Summit resident fighting the Royal Gorge development between 2007 and 2011: “Work together to identify a project you can live with,” she said. “My fellow supervisors don’t respond well to ‘No.’ I know reaching a vision you all can live with won’t be easy, but I encourage it.”
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