Placer County Superior Court issued a ruling on April 17 that will allow Sierra Watch’s Brown Act challenges to KSL’s proposed development to continue.
“Today’s decision is good news for everyone who wants to ensure the integrity of the public process and ultimately to provide reasonable limits on development in Tahoe and to Keep Squaw True,” Isaac Silverman, Sierra Watch staff attorney said.
After Placer County approved KSL Capital Partners’ application for massive development in Tahoe’s Squaw Valley last November, Sierra Watch filed two legal challenges to overturn the approvals.
KSL’s Squaw Valley development proposals call for thirty years of construction with 1,493 new bedrooms spread among a series of condo hotels, many of which would be nearly 100 feet tall, and include a 90,000 square foot indoor waterpark.
Last week KSL made more news when they announced an agreement with Aspen Skiing Company to purchase Intrawest and its resorts, including Winter Park, and, in a separate deal, Mammoth Resorts.
The first legal challenge to its development entitlements is based primarily on the California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA. That law requires Placer County to adequately assess what development would mean to important issues such as traffic on local roads and water quality in Lake Tahoe.
According to Sierra Watch, throughout the planning process, the county downplayed KSL’s $1 billion project and how it would remake Squaw Valley and transform the North Tahoe region. Sierra Watch contends that those approvals, therefore, were not only irresponsible but, also, illegal under CEQA.
The second challenge was based on the Brown Act, another state law designed to ensure good governance.
That lawsuit centers on how Placer County attempted to deal with one of the questions raised during the public planning process for the project: How would it impact Tahoe and the lake’s famous clarity?
“The Brown Act might not force Placer County to make responsible choices for Tahoe,” Silverman says, “but it does require that if they are going to make bad choices that harm the Lake, they have to do it in the open, in the plain light of a public hearing.”
In a petition filed on Jan. 19, Sierra Watch claimed Placer County violated state laws governing transparency and public involvement when the County Board of Supervisors shoehorned a last-minute agreement, negotiating to avoid litigation by the California Attorney General, into its sweeping project approvals.
Sierra Watch cites two specific violations of the Brown Act in the suit. First, it alleges that County staff, in violation of the law, gave documents to the Board of Supervisors less than 72 hours before the public meeting that weren’t simultaneously made available to the public.
Second, the county failed to give notice in the agenda for its November hearing, which the Board of Supervisors would be considering the back-room deal, detailed in those very same documents, to avoid litigation by the Attorney General over impacts to Lake Tahoe as part of the proposed project’s Development Agreement.
“KSL Capital Partners’ development proposal for Squaw Valley is a direct threat to what we love about Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada,” Tom Mooers, Executive Director of Sierra Watch said. “Our Brown Act challenge calls out decision-makers in their attempt to make back-room deals with the developer to sugarcoat its impact on the clarity of the lake.”
The county, in response, asked the court to grant a “demurrer” and throw Sierra Watch’s case out of court because, the county alleged, Sierra Watch could not make its case that the county had violated the law.
However, in today’s ruling, the court largely rejected Placer County’s demurrer, allowing Sierra Watch’s claims to move forward. The court agreed with Sierra Watch that the county may have violated the Brown Act if, as Sierra Watch alleges, they failed to make documents available to public when they were given to the Board of Supervisors on the eve of the hearing.
As to the question of the agenda, the court was not yet convinced that the County’s actions were illegal, but it granted Sierra Watch the opportunity to amend its petition and clarify its concerns.
“It’s not the finish line,” Silverman explained. “But today’s ruling ensures that the future of Squaw Valley and Lake Tahoe will get its day in court.”
Next, Sierra Watch will submit an amended complaint, likely within twenty days.
In the meantime, attorneys for Sierra Watch and for the county and KSL are preparing the administrative record for the CEQA case, which will likely take years to resolve.