A decade ago, Placer County was making headlines as one of the fastest growing locations in the nation. But that growth was largely confined to the western side of the oblong-shaped county, where the ramparts of the rugged Sierra Nevada relent into rolling foothills and then give way to the flat expanse of the Sacramento Valley.

But in the early 2000s, large development proposals made their way over the Sierra Crest and arrived to the high-altitude end of Placer County. It started with plans for thousands of luxury homes and multiple golf courses in the Martis Valley, a serene expanse of meadow and sagebrush below Northstar ski resort. And then it expanded to Northstar, Tahoe’s West Shore, Donner Summit, and Squaw Valley.

Community members and environmental groups have battled this cascade of resort development at almost every turn. Martis Valley development proposals were stalled by a tangle of lawsuits. Homewood’s village plan also ended up in front of a judge, and the development proposal for Royal Gorge folded under the weight of community backlash and a slumping economy.

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Now, Squaw Valley’s village expansion proposal — a plan to add more than 1,000 new condos, shops, and restaurants to the base of the Olympic ski resort — is the latest resort development proposal to engulf the eastern end of Placer County in a raging debate over the impacts of resort development.

The intense controversy surrounding Squaw’s proposal puts Placer County back into the now-familiar hot seat as it attempts to conduct an impartial planning process while developers, environmental groups, and community members amass on opposing sides. While the last decade has turned Placer County into an epicenter of resort development, attracting deep-pocketed resort corporations like Vail Resorts, JMA Ventures, KSL Capital Partners, and DMB Highlands Group, it has also come with its share of controversy — controversy that has led to lawsuits during the planning process, lawsuits following resort construction, and a separatist movement in Squaw Valley that seeks to split from the county and create its own town.

“I think the county is getting the scrutiny that it needs,” said Jennifer Montgomery, the Placer County Supervisor for the Tahoe area. “This is an important project. It is an important project for the region.”

The Squaw Valley Village Plan
The Squaw Valley village expansion planning process may be where a decade of brewing controversy comes to a head. Seasoned by victorious opposition to resort development proposals across the eastern end of the county, the critics of Squaw Valley’s village expansion are prepared for the fight. Sierra Watch and Truckee-based Mountain Area Preservation won a compromise in the Martis Valley after successfully suing the county, and were an integral part of the opposition to the Royal Gorge development. The two conservation groups are now familiar faces to Placer County planners and resort developers.

Executive Director Tom Mooers said Sierra Watch “felt dismissed” during the Martis Valley process. “We did not think the planning process was friendly to the public process — that is how we ended up in court,” he said.

This time, the county’s reception to Sierra Watch is different, said Mooers.

“We have good early indications that the county wants to ensure meaningful public involvement,” said Mooers of the Squaw Valley village planning process.

But the attention to the planning process is not just coming from Sierra Watch and Mountain Area Preservation. More than half of Squaw Valley voters signed a petition saying that they want to split from the county and create their own town that would govern local planning decisions. And criticisms of the county’s planning process has succeeded in getting the county to re-instate Squaw Valley’s Design Review Committee oversight at the beginning of the planning process.

Montgomery said the county is committed to a public process that includes everyone.

“We are not trying to hide anything from anyone. We want this to be a really open process. That is really my commitment — to make this as open and transparent as possible. I think it benefits everyone to have as much information as possible,” said Montgomery.

But all of this maneuvering comes even as Squaw Valley Ski Holdings (the parent company of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows) remains at the very initial phases of project submittal, and some of the big questions about water availability, traffic, parking, and employee housing have not yet come into sharp focus.

The Past Influences the Present
Whether it is a reflection of the growing polarity of resort development or the inadequacy of the the county’s planning process, many of the most important land use decisions in eastern Placer County in the last 10 years have been decided in the courtroom. This is the backdrop in front of which the Squaw Valley village expansion plan is unfolding.

Past lawsuits have come both before and after resort development construction, and have left some community members questioning the county’s ability to regulate and enforce development.

Northstar Village developers lost a lawsuit brought by neighboring condo association at Aspen Grove over a retention pond that the neighboring condo owners say is waterlogging their property with underground seepage. The pond was built directly upslope of the neighboring condos and in a location that was supposed to be a development setback, according to Aspen Grove owners. That decision is being appealed by the Northstar Village corporations.

“The fact that East West Partners and Northstar were able to get a permit, install a retention pond, and receive a use permit without any geological testing raises a lot of questions for me about the quality of the oversight by the county,” said Bob Thornton, vice president of the Aspen Grove Condominium Association. “If this could happen to Aspen Grove, how many other projects out there have been under-scrutinized for expedience’s sake?”

The county is being sued by a group that calls themselves TRUST (Tahoe Residents United for Safe Transit) over a road between Northstar and Martis Camp that the litigators say was supposed to be only for emergency access, but is now used by construction vehicles and others as a shortcut to Highway 267.

“Generally you go through the development process and you have all these safeguards, and you hope they all work perfectly. If they don’t work perfectly that is usually an issue of civil litigation,” said Montgomery.

Meanwhile, Homewood Mountain Resort’s village project has also been stalled by a lawsuit from the Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore.

While the Squaw Valley village project is the resort development proposal on everyone’s mind, people like Tom Mooers don’t expect the development pressure to relent anytime soon.

“As the resort real estate market slowly comes back and as investors see the success of Martis Camp in particular, resort development proposals will continue,” said Mooers. “Everything we love about the Sierra is going to attract people who want to make money off of that.”

But those resort development proposals are now eliciting more and more public scrutiny — for both the developer and the county standing in the middle of the planning process.

And this time, the stakes are even higher for the county. Squaw Valley is making strides toward becoming its own town, conservation groups that have already defeated the county in court are intensely involved in the process, and skiers and residents from across the region are hotly opinionated about the project.

Montgomery said that three issues have stood out so far in the project — traffic, water, and community impact.

“I believe that it has to have that balance. It has to be good for the community. It has to be good for the economy and it has to be good for the environment,” said Montgomery.

And the county has made every effort to get out as much information as possible about the project, hosting presentations about the Squaw development at nearly every Squaw Valley Municipal Advisory Council meeting, she said.

But it remains to be seen whether the county can successfully broker a process that brings the developers and the community to a compromise, or whether Squaw’s village expansion will end up like many of the county’s Tahoe projects in the last decade — argued over by lawyers and decided on by a judge.

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  • David Bunker

    David Bunker almost dropped out of journalism school to hunt non-native rats on an uninhabited Pacific island. Instead, he graduated college and launched into a career of dump truck driving and ditch digging before taking up writing as a profession. He’s written for newspapers and magazines across the West and won numerous first place awards in the California and Nevada press associations.

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