Chris Heasman, a writer in Kenmore, Scotland, first learned of Discovery Land Company, an Arizona-based real estate developer and operator of luxury private residential communities and resorts, when it purchased the nearby Taymouth Castle on Loch Tay in 2018. But it wasn’t until 2022, when Discovery began buying up property and businesses in Kenmore, that Heasman and other residents began to take note. One of their main concerns was whether Discovery’s plans for the property, which included renovation of the castle and existing 18-hole golf course and construction of 145 homes, would maintain public access to the estate’s 7,775 acres. Scotland’s 2003 Land Reform Act gives the public the right to traverse most of the country’s land, also known as the “freedom to roam.”

Residents were so alarmed that they started the organization Protect Loch Tay, whose Facebook page now has 4,000 members, as well as a petition to stop the development that has been signed by almost 160,000 people. Heasman, who did work for Protect Loch Tay for about 6 months, also wrote an in-depth blog entry in September 2023 called Discovery by a Thousand Cuts about some of Discovery’s other projects around the globe, and how they are impeding public access and harming the environment in places like Barbuda in the Caribbean, Guana Cay in the Bahamas, and Comporta, Portugal.

“Is what Discovery is planning in Scotland going to look like what they do everywhere else —making it highly exclusive and restricting access?” Heasman told Moonshine Ink from Scotland. “I am concerned that they are going to use language in terms of access that will allow them to restrict a lot of it and still keep the commitments they made.”

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Heasman’s concerns are the same as the ones shared by Tahoe residents after Discovery finalized its partnership with JMA Ventures in April 2022 to redevelop Homewood Mountain Resort. That year, the two companies floated the idea of making the ski area private, which was met with much public outcry. But after Discovery announced last fall that Homewood would remain public, a grassroots advocacy coalition has been pushing for the company to put their commitment to public access in writing. With the release of the revised master plan for the ski area last month, Discovery appears to be keeping its word. Although opponents remain skeptical, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency says it can hold the project proponents accountable if they renege.

An updated concept

The intent of the revised master plan, which was submitted by Discovery to the TRPA on May 10, is to communicate its new vision for the project after receiving public feedback and realizing that taking the ski resort private is not feasible without a major amendment to the 2011 master plan.

“There are new owners with a new vision, and they want to put their own design on this — moving some things closer to the street to engage pedestrians,” said TRPA spokesperson Jeff Cowen. “That [original] proposal was 14 years ago, things changed, ownership changed. They have a different vision of what they want to see and what Homewood should look and feel like.”

The updated master plan predominantly focuses on architectural, programming, and engineering changes. The main modification is the location of the gondola terminal in the base area. Discovery wants to emphasize the community gathering area at the north base; as such, it proposes moving the gondola terminal from higher up the hill and bringing it down to the village.

“The gondola was up on the hill, operationally and practically it was disconnected and required hiking up or going up stairs,” said Ed Divita, a partner at Discovery, which oversees sales, marketing, and operations of the Homewood development. “We are making it an anchor for the community gathering area, opening up opportunities for great improvements.”

The gondola will be surrounded by skier services like day lockers, a parking garage for 400 day skiers, a general store, market, seasonal ice rink, and open spaces that can house a farmer’s market and art fairs in the summer.

Another change in the revised master plan is to the massing of the buildings at the north base. The original 2011 master plan called for a 30,000 square-foot lodge, but Discovery wants to break it up into multiple buildings to better match the West Shore’s residential scale character.

“It’s more of an inviting feel,” Divita said.

The new plan also calls for reducing the number of residential units from 224 to 115, but making the homes larger, resulting in overall coverage area that is almost identical for both 2011 and 2024 plans.

Divita says building fewer but slightly larger homes will reduce traffic.

“One of the goals is to keep Homewood small, local families, no crowds on the mountain, and not to create traffic problems,” he said.

Most notably, the revised master plan does not mention making Homewood a private ski area. The update states, like the original 2011 plan, that it “specifically maintains quality skiing experience equally enjoyed by local residents and visitors,” and offers “winter recreation amenity to residents, second homeowners and visitors of the West Shore.”

Devita said the resort is looking at offering four classes of products that will be available to anyone to purchase: day lift tickets, ski passes with blackout dates, ski passes with no blackout dates, and a platinum pass similar to Northstar’s Platinum Club, which offers access to the club building and slope-side amenities like valet service, a lounge area, and lockers.

TRPA as bulwark

However, as of publication, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency had not yet had a chance to fully review the revised master plan’s 65 documents. The agency’s first step is to determine if the application is complete, which takes 30 days, then it takes another 120 days to review the substance of the application. After that, there will be an opportunity for the community to make comments at public meetings.

If the proposed revisions are approved by the TRPA, Homewood will need permits from Placer County to erect the gondola terminal and other buildings. The county will make sure each individual project is in compliance with the updated plan.

Cowen reiterates that turning Homewood into a private ski resort is not in conformance with the 2011 master plan, and in fact it was Discovery’s announcement in early 2022 about wanting to go in that direction that triggered the need for a revision.

“We were not going to move forward with any projects under the master plan until Discovery had a process for [explaining] its vision of the future,” Cowen said. “That’s what got us to be where we are — requiring an application to update or revise the master plan because of this possibility of changing public access.”

Cowen notes that if Discovery moved to make the ski resort private, that would change the resort from a recreation area to a neighborhood, which would require much more than just a master plan update. Instead, there would need to be a regional plan amendment, a much bigger and more complicated process. At 1,260 acres, Homewood is the largest private parcel in the Tahoe Basin.

The TRPA has the power to hold Homewood to account. If Discovery violates its master plan, the TRPA can issue a cease and desist order and fines of up to $5,000 per infraction per day.

This spring, a partner in Homewood’s new chapter seemed to contradict Discovery’s pledge to keep the ski resort public. Mohari is a global investment company in luxury hospitality based in Cyprus that partnered with JMA ventures in October 2023 to acquire, recapitalize, and develop up to $2 billion of luxury hospitality and mixed-use projects in North America. It is now the main equity investor in Homewood.

In March, Mohari Managing Partner J. Allen Smith said about Homewood in an interview at a real estate conference, “We are privatizing the ski mountain with Discovery Land and our U.S. based partners JMA Ventures … think of it as a mini version of that [the Yellowstone Club, a private ski and golf resort in Montana] in Lake Tahoe.”

In April, Smith backtracked, sending an email to the TRPA that reversed his statement.

“I … made some comments about Homewood Mountain Resort that, in my effort to be brief for the audience, misstated our plans for community access,” he wrote in an email to TRPA Executive Director Julie Regan. “Our partners at JMA and Discovery Land have been leading the project’s efforts with both community and agency stakeholders and the commitments they have made with respect to public access are commitments that we at Mohari as well as JMA and Discovery stand behind … We remain committed to delivering a project that benefits all stakeholders by maintaining public access, respecting community character and being a leader in environmental stewardship.”

Can a leopard change its spots?

Keep Homewood Public, a nonprofit advocacy coalition formed in February 2023, reviewed the revised master plan for concrete commitments by Discovery to public access, which Divita promised at several public meetings held this year. They found the application lacking.

“Despite Discovery’s recent verbal claims to the media and community, nothing in the new application prevents the developers from privatizing Homewood, today or in the future,” KHP wrote in a letter to the TRPA.

Specifically, KHP says there is no definition of “public” in the revised master plan, nor any detailed explanation of how the general public will access the mountain and its amenities.

“Without detailed definition of ‘general public’ and ‘members’ as user classes, along with their access privileges, Discovery could shut out the general public from recreating at Homewood,” KHP wrote.

KHP believes that Discovery has a history of gradually eroding public access, and points to another Discovery project, the CordeValle golf club in California’s Santa Clara County. When Discovery took over the golf course in 1998, its use permit required that 60% of golf rounds be reserved for the public. But by 2002, it became clear that CordeValle had violated this condition. A new agreement with the county stated that 50% of public pay rounds be for guests at the hotel, where rooms now start at $930. The remaining 10% is satisfied through a youth golf foundation and youth programs funded by the golf course.

Sequoia Hall, a Santa Clara County planning commissioner from 2000 to 2007 who worked to get CordeValle to honor its commitment to the public, has a warning for all communities facing a new development.

“Be really careful what you approve because as awesome as it seems at the moment, it may not be great for residents,” he told Moonshine Ink. “If it’s not in writing, if it’s not really, really fixed, [developers] will renege for economic reasons.”

KHP believes Discovery will backtrack on its promises to maintain Homewood as a public ski resort unless there are stronger assurances in the plan.

“I think Discovery has a track record of promising amenities to local councils they need approvals from, and then over the years cutting back on amenities to improve the exclusivity and privacy of member offerings,” said KHP spokesperson Kathy Astromoff. “Fundamentally I don’t believe that leopards change their spots. I do believe they have a playbook where they … take a development everybody wants to see redeveloped anyways, and carefully and quietly get approvals without disclosing that the surrounding population will not have access to that development.”

Heasman from Scotland agrees. He has documented how six of Discovery’s 35 projects have curtailed public access.

“I have never seen in meetings I have had with people in Scotland, Barbuda, Portugal, Montana, New York … I have never had a meeting with anybody to give me a reason to trust anything Discovery does,” he said.

Divita, however, disagrees with sentiments that Discovery can’t be trusted.

“If you look at our track record, we have a total conformance track record,” he said. “We have a track record of 35 projects. People thank us for coming in and being contributing members.”

As an example, Divita points to the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian hit the island in 2019. He said Discovery helped evacuate the injured and paid for hotel rooms for the displaced, as well as raised $17 million for rebuilding.

“That’s what we want to be at Homewood — contributing members of the community, great employers, and to have the community really say, ‘gosh, that’s what we wanted.’”

Divita also pledges to keep Homewood public.

“We are 100% committed to meeting the goals and objective as it relates to public access and making Homewood accessible to the public and visitors,” Divita said. “We are not reverting or changing approvals from 2011.”

Author

  • Melissa Siig

    Melissa Siig ditched international politics in Washington, D.C. in 2001 to move to Tahoe, where she quickly found her true calling — journalism. She has written for regional and national publications, and enjoys writing about community issues and quirky human interest stories. When not at her keyboard, she is busy wrangling her three children, co-running Tahoe Art Haus & Cinema, or playing outside.

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1 COMMENT

  1. As an article in MI pointed out a few years ago, regional agencies, and especially Placer County, have a poor record of holding developers accountable for the commitments they make in order to get there projects approved. The article in question was talking about uneforced affordable housing requirements but there is no reason to expect the agencies to be any more commited to enforcement of public access to Homewood or any other commitments Discovery makes.