A contentious months-long written debate has finally concluded between Placer County, its board of supervisors, and Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows versus local nonprofit Sierra Watch over development plans put forth by the resort.
The “conversation” consists of legal briefings that have gone back and forth during Sierra Watch’s second appeal of Placer County’s decision to approve development plans, and this time the mediator of that conversation is California’s Third Appellate District Court.
The campaign against the village development plans, dubbed the “Keep Squaw True” movement, and the legal battle led by Sierra Watch has been ongoing since Squaw Alpine (now owned by ski resort giant Alterra) first announced the project in 2011. On Nov. 15, 2016, the Placer County Board of Supervisors approved the project, after which Sierra Watch appealed the decision, filing complaints to the county’s superior court on two separate counts. 2018 saw rulings in favor of the 93.3-acre proposal in both cases, on the heels of years of meetings, hundreds of public comments, and many signed petitions.
The first of the two challenges to Squaw’s development by Sierra Watch was mostly on the grounds of violations of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Among other arguments, the group contends that increased traffic resulting from the project would threaten the clarity of Lake Tahoe, a natural region that is directly mentioned in CEQA itself (which calls the gem of the Sierra of “statewide, regional, or area-wide significance”).
Sierra Watch also had previously filed a suit on the grounds that the Placer County board’s decision was announced without proper consideration of the Brown Act, a piece of transparency legislation sometimes nicknamed California’s “good government act.”
After the superior court ruled in favor of Squaw, Sierra Watch appealed again, as plaintiff and appellant, taking both counts to the state of California and naming Placer County and its Board of Supervisors as well as developer Squaw Valley LLC as the defendants. The two parties are currently waiting for word that the court is ready to hear oral arguments and make a ruling, with no slated timeline on either decision.
“The length of the process is challenging,” Sierra Watch Executive Director Tom Mooers told Moonshine Ink. “Although [the waiting] also means that, hey, there’s another year where there’s no indoor water park in Squaw Valley. That’s good news in itself.”
For Ron Cohen, new COO and president of Squaw Alpine, the notion of fighting against specifics like indoor water parks or developing in Shirley Canyon (two aspects to the plan that have faced community backlash, encouraged by Sierra Watch’s messaging) distracts from the fact that the approved aspects represent maximum potential development, not a locked-in plan.
“What came out of that process was a set of entitlements,” Cohen explained, which “essentially recommend the largest extent to which as an owner you could legally have your property developed; they don’t require you to develop to that extent, they authorize you to develop.”
Cohen, who ran his own hospitality business in Yosemite and worked for Alterra-owned Mammoth Mountain resort, each for eight years, started his position at Squaw Alpine in April 2018 (in addition to a short legal stint working directly for Alterra). After Alterra formed and gained ownership of Squaw Alpine from former proprietary company KSL, they didn’t significantly alter the existing development plans. Cohen thinks it would be foolish to “go back” on those maximum permissions, because he fully intends to continue a process of community feedback to make sure they end up building “what’s right” for the mountain, within the set of parameters the county has allowed.
The approved plans include, on the village parcel, no more than 1,493 new residential units, an equipment yard, 9 acres of parking structures, and approximately 274,000 square feet for an entertainment park. The east parcel, also included within the approvals, could include dormitory-style employee housing, a parking structure, and 20,000 square feet of commercial space.
The future of Squaw Valley lies with the state’s court of appeals. As the case gets prepped to be heard, a long-form written “conversation” went back and forth between the parties. The following are excerpts from the briefs by the opposing legal teams, which highlight what’s at stake.
On Environmental Grounds: Briefs From Lawsuit No. 1
Originally, Placer County’s decision that Squaw Alpine’s development plans meet CEQA requirements was based on a rejection of the notion that Squaw Valley, situated just outside the official borders of the Tahoe Basin, has a significant impact on Lake Tahoe clarity. Sierra Watch’s main initial argument was based on the grand lake, with Mooers telling Moonshine that “this development threatens everything we love about Squaw Valley and the Tahoe Sierra.”
Sierra Watch’s appeal to this decision began with their appellant opening brief, which focused on what they argue was the county’s failure to address concerns laid out in CEQA primarily about Tahoe clarity and preservation, fire evacuation safety, and traffic increase. The opening brief reads, in part:
Despite the public outcry … the Board of Supervisors … voted to approve it and certify the defective EIR. Tellingly, the Supervisor representing Squaw Valley and the Tahoe area voted to deny the Project and reject the EIR.
… Located just outside the Lake Tahoe Basin, the development would add nearly 24,000 vehicle-miles traveled (“VMT”) per day to the Basin. This is more than 100 times the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s (“TRPA”) threshold of significance (200 VMT). All that traffic would add to the pollution and nutrients that are steadily depriving Lake Tahoe of its clarity.
… In Squaw Valley, there is only one way out — Squaw Valley Road. If the proposed high-rises and indoor waterpark are built and occupied, it could take an estimated 10 hours and 40 minutes just to exit the Valley on the busiest weekends.
Placer and Squaw’s response focuses on backing up the initial findings of the EIR as well as working to refute what their team deems as the “appellant’s hyperbolic adverbs and adjectives [that] distort the record.”
In part, here is the opposition response from the Placer and Squaw Alpine camp:
Most development will occur on a paved parking lot. … Over 36 acres of open space — compared to 20 acres under the SVGPLUO [originally adopted development standards] — is preserved.… The Project is located miles outside the Tahoe Basin … Its sole impact is that some visitors will — like anyone in the region — visit the Tahoe Basin.
In response to visual encroachment and mass of scale concerns, the brief also reminded the court that the project’s scale has been significantly reduced; for example, it states that the developer team “steadily reduced the Project from 3,187 bedrooms to the approved 1,493 bedrooms.”
As for the fire safety issues, Squaw took issue with Sierra Watch’s assessment that utilizing the new development as a “shelter-in-place” solution, a system of wildfire or other disaster relief involving seeking refuge where one is, isn’t realistic:
Appellant scoffs at shelter-in-place as “cryptic” and ineffective, but cites no expert evidence supporting this view. … In fact, shelter-in-place at the Village has long been part of SVFD’s emergency planning.
Then, Sierra Watch’s final rebuttal on the lawsuit challenging the validity of the EIR and the project’s ability to meet CEQA requirements ends the exchange swinging. Its opening states:
The opposition brief … cannot credibly explain the glaring omissions in the Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”). So Respondents engage in diversionary tactics. They misuse evidence in the administrative record, setting forth voluminous record citations that, upon examination, have little or no relevance to appellant’s actual claims.
Substantively, Sierra Watch’s final reply brief focuses much of its efforts on the Lake Tahoe clarity and preservation argument; in fact, a third of the organization’s 78-page document focuses on the lake:
As a factual matter, it is undisputed that the Project would generate 1,353 car trips and 23,842 vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) in a single day to the Tahoe Basin. As appellant explained, scientists agree that such vehicle travel results in the deposition of pollutants and finely-crushed road sediment into Lake Tahoe, threatening its water quality and clarity. Respondents do not contest this science.
On fire, the brief states,
Respondents attempt to downplay the project’s fire risk, claiming it is not as bad as what the designation as a “very high fire hazard severity zone … suggests.”
Brown v. Transparency: Briefs From Lawsuit No. 2
The second appeal Sierra Watch filed questions the process: The nonprofit is claiming that there were violations of the Brown Act, passed in 1953, which is meant to ensure public involvement in government decision-making.
Specifically, the Brown Act requires that any governing body “post an agenda containing a brief general description of each item of business to be transacted or discussed at the meeting,” and that key documents must be made “available for public inspection.”
In Placer County’s original public comment period for the Squaw development, then-attorney general Kamala Harris submitted a 15-page statement alleging that the county’s EIR wasn’t sufficient. Then days before the planning commission voted 4-2 on Aug. 11, 2016 to recommend the project’s approval to the board of supervisors, her office retracted the opinion, causing concern of a deal from Sierra Watch and others. (See Two Major Development Projects. One Planning Commission. Two Very Different Votes and Squaw’s Future Decided for context about the state’s involvement in the 2016 Placer decision).
Mooers alleges that before the November 2016 hearings by the Placer County Board of Supervisors, “a last-minute deal … (was) cut with the opposition, the state attorney general and with the developer, KSL at the time, and sprung … on the public in a way that violated California’s good government law.”
Mooers explained that the Brown Act requires decision-making bodies “to operate in the sunshine,” he said, by making any documents available to them also accessible to the public.
Sierra Watch’s opening brief on this suit claims,
The county failed to alert the public that the Board would consider approving, in conjunction with the Project, an eleventh-hour deal concerning an issue of great public interest that County staff had hastily negotiated in secret with the project applicant … and the Office of the California Attorney General.
Mooers told Moonshine Ink the board kept relevant documents at the time in a “file cabinet in a locked office after-hours the night before the hearing,” which he doesn’t consider to be sufficiently transparent via the Brown Act.
“They stood up in court saying that that was sharing with the public even though the public didn’t know about it and had no access to it,” Mooers continued.
Cohen countered, upholding the court’s decision by explaining to Moonshine that “there is no evidence to support the Sierra Watch’s allegations. The Brown Act [suit] isn’t really about the Brown Act; [it’s] about trying to find a way to block the development.”
Cohen’s legal team, in their response brief, refutes Sierra Watch’s claim of a “‘deal’ with the Attorney General to avoid litigation … there was no need to inform the public of such a nonexistent deal,” and goes on to allege that relevant documents were posted for the public 72 hours in advance of the 2016 hearing.
So, What Now?
In the end, Cohen doesn’t see as much conflict between his and Mooers’ priorities as the legal battle would have you believe.
“What you build ultimately needs to reflect what will work for the place, for the market, for the skiers, for the community. If you don’t get that mix right, the fact that you got it entitled isn’t going to make it successful,” he told Moonshine Ink. Any specific project will have to go through the approval process, and Cohen has expressed interest in seeking ample community feedback before committing to any part of the plan.
Cohen said he’s certain that one thing they need at the resort is more hotel rooms, which he says is currently an underserved element. Yet, “we won’t build something until we’ve had a very thorough discussion with our people and we’ve got a really good idea of what our people want,” Cohen said.
Mooers focuses his own fight on the long haul, rather than the day-to-day or even year-to-year of legal battles and regulatory development blocking strategies. Wading through the long bureaucratic process of suits and appeals, public comment, and building campaign momentum year-after-year, Mooers sees a light at the end of his fight’s tunnel. “We haven’t lost Squaw Valley to irresponsible development. But if we were to lose or give up then it’s truly over and it’s over forever,” Mooers told Moonshine.
Main Image Caption: VILLAGE DEVELOPMENT plans could have a significant visual impact on Squaw Valley, but COO Ron Cohen wants the public to understand that the entitlements currently under appeal with California’s Third Appellate District Court provide the maximum threshold for development, not a requirement. Image courtesy Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows