Editor’s note, Feb. 15 at 9:30 a.m.: California’s Third District Court of Appeals has ruled unanimously that Placer County’s environmental review of the Martis Valley West project was inadequate, citing concern over the development’s impacts on Lake Tahoe and effects to climate. Further, the court agreed with the California Clean Energy Committee that alternative energy sources and traffic mitigations were not incorporated into the project.
The Lake Tahoe Basin, in all its glory, is a worldwide destination. About 15 million people visit each year — or the state populations of Arizona and Washington combined — and the lake is one of the top two clearest in the United States.
Behind the scenes of such beauty are the cogs to keep everything humming. To unify the multiple jurisdictions surrounding the lake in the name of protection, a bi-state compact in 1969 formed the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which is charged with development oversight, regulatory enforcement, and implementation of environmental programs in the Basin, an area that encompasses all area draining into Lake Tahoe. Should a development be proposed within the Basin’s boundaries, by law the TRPA’s guidelines and thresholds must be considered.
Until August 2021, projects taking place just beyond the mountain peaks looking down onto the lake were not required to utilize the TRPA’s thresholds (though some certainly have). But a decision out of California’s Third District Court of Appeals last summer paved legal precedent for requiring formal consideration for impacts on the lake, even in non-Basin developments.
The court ruled in favor of plaintiff Sierra Watch in the suit against Placer County and Palisades Tahoe over the development formerly called Squaw Valley Village. The Placer County Board of Supervisors had approved the Palisades project in November 2016, with then-District 5 Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery as the only opposing vote. Sierra Watch, a conservation-focused nonprofit, appealed a month later. The trial court confirmed the county’s decision in 2018, and the organization appealed once more.
Then last summer, the state appeals court reversed the county trial court judgment, stating in its partially published decision that it agreed with Sierra Watch’s claims about impacts to Lake Tahoe, traffic, noise, and fire danger, and that Placer County and Palisades must make considerations about such impacts if the project is to move forward. The partial publication of the decision allows that portion to be used as legal precedent for reference in future cases.
The county is now developing internal environmental threshold guidelines for Lake Tahoe clarity, with evaluations for criteria currently underway.
“There’s additional research that’s needed to figure out how much [vehicle] trips into the Basin effect lake clarity and the exact connection between the two,” explained Clayton Cook, legal counsel for Placer. “But that’s something the court’s asked us to undertake … The ruling did suggest that TRPA thresholds could be evaluated, but it didn’t require TRPA thresholds.”
Meanwhile, the precedent is already being leveraged in another project that, like Palisades, went for approval before Placer County governing bodies in 2016/17, but unlike the ski resort, was denied both by the planning commission and the county court. The Martis Valley West project is a planned 670-acre resort development that’s adjacent to Northstar California Resort and includes commercial and residential units to replace over 660 acres of forested land. The project also proposed the establishment of a permanent conservation area covering 6,376 acres.
The Placer County Planning Commission recommended denying approvals of Martis Valley West in 2016, in a 5-2 vote, citing concerns over traffic and evacuation plans, but was overridden by the board of supervisors. That decision, appealed by Sierra Watch and other groups, was overturned by a county court.
“The Placer County Board of Supervisors approved the project in 2016. Sierra Watch joined Mountain Area Preservation and the League to Save Lake Tahoe to challenge those approvals in court at the Placer County trial court level, which is like the first stop in the legal process,” Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch, said.
The trial court judge agreed with the plaintiffs’ concerns over wildfire danger and evacuation.
“That was great and that stopped the project,” Mooers continued. “But we also think that the project approvals were illegal as they didn’t do things like look at impacts on Tahoe, so we actually appealed that decision even though we won, because we want the appellate court to offer a stronger decision.” In December, oral arguments were presented to the Third District, the same court that set the precedent in the Palisades Tahoe decision. The plaintiffs pointed out a slew of impacts they see the Martis project having on the Lake Tahoe Basin, such as greenhouse gas emissions, traffic, and effects on lake clarity.
“Our legal counsel was able to stand up on Zoom and cite the Sierra Watch precedent and say, ‘Hey, this court has already determined that you can’t ignore impacts on Tahoe,’” Mooers said.
Clayton sees the Martis Valley project, in which Placer County is again serving as defendant, as distinct from Palisades Tahoe, saying he doesn’t believe the impacts to the Basin are the same.
“When you have a project that’s outside the Basin, it gets a little bit more technical in terms of what are the impacts to the lake,” he said. “… The court found in the [Olympic Valley] ruling that we needed to do additional research on those topics, specifically on the water quality aspect. But I do think that is something that projects look at and that we look at on the county side in terms of approving projects outside the Basin.
“You have to look at what potential impacts are brought into the Basin, because it’s not all the same impacts that you would have with a project within the Basin,” Clayton said.
A decision is expected out of the Third District court of appeals on Martis Valley West by mid-March. Clifton Taylor, president of the firm overseeing development of Martis Valley West, Taylor Builders, shared with Moonshine that the project is moving forward as planned.
“We recognize on the surface the issues seem similar between the two projects,” he wrote in an email. “However, our group feels strongly there are unique differences in the two projects’ environmental review and legal challenges. We were pleased with how the oral arguments went in December and look forward to the decision in the coming months. Regarding the project status, we continue to advance planning and regulatory efforts in anticipation of a final court decision this year.”
With regard to Palisades, Clayton said county staff is working with Alterra to reevaluate the village development, though there are no proposals in front of staff at this time.
What the general future holds
Mooers said Sierra Watch wants to work with local land trusts to purchase the Martis Valley West property to protect it in perpetuity from development. If the court of appeals declines to rule against the project for Basin impacts, Mooers added that the plaintiffs won’t stop fighting, and could even bring the case to the state supreme court.
“Our commitment isn’t going anywhere,” he said.
Meanwhile, more stringent environmental requirements for projects outside the Tahoe Basin might even out a currently lopsided playing field. Both the county and Mooers pointed to the tendency for developers in recent years to avoid building new developments in the Tahoe Basin, aiming to avoid TRPA regulations.
“I can’t say for sure what their motivations have been, but I do think if you took an aerial look at the Tahoe Basin and right outside the Basin, you’d see a lot of development [outside],” Mooers said. “… The bad news is that the impacts of those projects, especially traffic, still pour into the Tahoe Basin and have a direct impact on the lake’s clarity.”
Cindy Gustafson, District 5 supervisor with Placer County, agreed that inter-Basin development standards are significantly stricter when compared with the areas outside of Lake Tahoe, and that developers purposely avoid proposals within the Basin. Placer County, like other counties around the lake, has land both within and without the Basin.
However, rehabilitation of existing buildings within the Basin has been a hot item because of the TRPA’s 2012 regional plan update, which in part encouraged the environmental redevelopment of outdated properties in town centers rather than new development.
“Since that time, we’ve really not seen a new project yet within the Tahoe Basin,” Gustafson said. “Our focus both at the county level … [and] the community level is to get reinvestment in our deteriorating town centers. Much of our development in the Tahoe Basin is very, very old. It doesn’t meet current environmental standards. And one of the reasons for the TRPA regional plan update was to allow increased density height in the town centers to encourage new investment, because with that, you get environmental improvements; there’s mitigations on those developments [to keep impacts in check].”
Placer County established a Transient Occupancy Tax rebate program in 2020 to encourage reinvestment within its Tahoe town centers. The program offers a refund to lodging properties that are newly planned, or proposed to be redeveloped, on TOT taxes for up to 20 years — 90% rebate for the first four years, 80% for the next four, and 70% for the remaining 12.
“When the redevelopment agencies statewide went away, that was the path we had to try to invest funding for infrastructure and other financial assistance to get developers back in working within the Basin,” Gustafson said.
As agencies within the Basin try to entice responsible development, Sierra Watch sees the recent legal precedent as an opportunity to shore up environmental responsibility for any future project.
Mooers says the August court decision against Alterra Mountain Company, owner of Palisades Tahoe, is good news for the TRPA whether or not the organization’s specific thresholds are used in the new policies being developed in Placer.
“[TRPA] can continue to do their work in the Tahoe Basin to protect the lake,” he continued. “And this offers a measure of protection right outside their jurisdiction, which helps make sure that the projects outside of Tahoe don’t undo the work that TRPA has been doing for so many decades.”
Jeff Cowen, public information officer with the TRPA, shared a statement with Moonshine that said in part, “If requested, TRPA is available to work with Placer County, the applicant, and stakeholders collaboratively as they determine their next steps.”
If TRPA-like building restrictions are extended beyond the traditional Basin boundaries, will that help preserve Lake Tahoe’s clarity? Will it drive developers away from the region? The debate continues.