White Wolf has an essence of the mythical: unfinished ski lift towers and skeletons of crumbling buildings, intended to resemble medieval castles melding into modern lines of concrete and glass; whispers of legendary skiing terrain that people have tried to poach for decades; and the solitary figure at the center of it all, a former pro skier whose hands are shaping the land’s story. (See The Legend of White Wolf for a history of the fabled name.)
Over 30 years ago, Troy Caldwell purchased 460 acres smack between the Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows ski resorts, a bite-sized piece of expert terrain that is the David to ski industry Goliaths. Caldwell’s dreams for the land oscillated, but skiing remained at the center of his vision. After a history of planning, politics, and other realities, the mountainous White Wolf property demanded a final decision.
The White Wolf Subdivision is his answer: a 275-acre private ski resort with two lifts, the in-the-works KT South ski lift, connecting White Wolf to the Squaw Valley ski resort, and a proposed White Wolf lift linking to the Alpine Meadows resort; plus a residential area with 38 homes on about three-quarters of an acre each, housing high-income movers and shakers, complete with on-site employee housing, a clubhouse/lodge, and such seasonal amenities as equestrian, swimming, and ice-skating facilities.
The housing part fits snugly within the property, but juggling topography and home placement requires a flip-flop of zoning, says Caldwell, which will bring houses close to federally designated wilderness area — something some groups aren’t happy about.
European vibes are what Caldwell’s going for — a way to promote a ski-eat-sleep (albeit private) getaway inspired by Caldwell’s travels around the world. He’s also encouraging architectural innovation with fire- and avalanche-proof structures, a shelter-in-place option, and even no-flush toilets.
“The dream has changed a bunch of times,” Caldwell said. “We envisioned a village in here, a ski-through in-and-out kind of thing. We kept getting shot in the head for suggesting something, and then this is what we came up with. If you’re going to do a residential community, to keep it low impact, we had to go to this very pricey house thing.”
The buyers will be wealthy, CEOs and celebrities and the like, who are interested in the mountain lifestyle. Caldwell said his chairlifts could serve as winter’s version of a golf course: “I can see a couple of these guys riding the chair and in three minutes conquer some major problems.”
The aforementioned zoning swap is a simple answer to ensuring development compatibility with the land; open space for residential, but also vice versa, with almost zero net difference in acreage for either designation.
“Some of the stuff would fall into avalanche zones if we didn’t move it around,” Caldwell said. “The general line … for the boundary of development would incorporate some areas that wouldn’t function well for a development or any home, so we had to rearrange that stuff topographically to work with what the land offered us.”
The whole of the White Wolf Subdivision mostly abides by its governing Alpine Meadows General Plan (a small portion falls under the Squaw Valley General Plan). The Alpine plan, published in 1968, defined an “approximate limit of development” — a rough boundary sketched out to encourage structures at lower elevations. Caldwell’s proposal largely is contained within this area, but has a portion that extends beyond the dotted line, meaning he needs a general plan amendment.
Placer County, which has jurisdiction over White Wolf land, notes the general plan is forgiving in terms of the development line.
“The general plan designation is more like the general intent of what they envisioned back in the day when they wrote that,” explained Stacy Wydra, senior planner with the county.
White Wolf’s general plan amendment proposes re-designating acreage from about 302 greenbelt acres to 301, and 55 now-developable acres to 56. Extending future homes beyond the line leaves more room for open space within the residential project.
It’s the grown-up equivalent of trading baseball cards to complete the set. As of now, the net loss of open space is about 1 acre, though that number could change, pointed out Wydra, based on Environmental Impact Report findings, which publicly analyze the development’s effects on natural and human environments.
Though the net exchange is insignificant numerically — coming up with a single acreage loss of open space is actually a big win in Caldwell’s book — it’s more the location of land swapping that irks some environmental groups. Expanding development beyond the general plan’s limit, blurred or not, brings construction and future structures closer to the Granite Chief Wilderness. That’s the crux for the opposition: increased development further up in the mountains beyond what’s currently allowable.
Sierra Watch is focusing on the proposed project’s effects on the federally designated wilderness area — specifically, as executive director Tom Mooers described via email, “the bulge of land extending from the Five Lakes Basin, over the Pacific Crest, and into [White Wolf’s] Catch Valley.
“What is really striking is the extent to which [the project] seeks to maximize a development footprint … where there is no zoning for subdivisions, up to the Five Lakes Trail, into land designated for national wilderness.”
The popular Five Lakes Trail, which sits just inside the boundaries of Granite Chief Wilderness, currently passes through the White Wolf property mostly on an easement granted to the U.S. Forest Service by Caldwell. With the development, the trail would then tread close to a branch of road and homes.
Under the 1964 Wilderness Act, however, Caldwell is within his rights to build such a development in close proximity to Granite Chief. Upon ownership, he was given the choice to preserve overlying acreage as private property or sell it as an addition to the wilderness; knowing the importance of the ski industry to the area, Caldwell kept the land as private.
“As far as us being too close,” he said, “there’s special language that says being able to see or hear development does not [preclude] the ability to utilize that property. There’s no need for a buffer zone. If you go into the wilderness you can see cell towers, tops of lifts … we’re basically doing what everyone else has done before us.”
Alexis Ollar, executive director of Mountain Area Preservation, sees Caldwell’s vision for White Wolf as a philosophical question: What does the project mean for the region, for natural resources, and for the Granite Chief Wilderness?
“That’s the perspective we’re taking,” she said, “the larger land use perspective, whether this [project] is suitable for the region. He’s been planning something for a long time, but does it make sense to rezone this area to residential?
“I think that’s why this has taken so long. I think [Caldwell]’s personally grappled with what this project is going to look like.”
The subdivision reveal was announced in early November 2019, and is currently under EIR review, which means the results are far from set in stone. Once the EIR is complete, county planning staff will present the project to the Squaw Valley Municipal Advisory Council, explained Placer’s Wydra. “[Then] we’ll be going to the North Tahoe Regional Advisory Council, and then they make a recommendation to the planning commission; the planning commission makes a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors; and the board makes the decision.”
Before any of that happens, Wydra continued, county staff is compiling information, writing out EIR sections, and making sure the appropriate support documentation from field studies is available.
Even after three decades, Caldwell and his team joke, “what’s another few?” But looking back at the timeline, Caldwell says if he’d known how long it would take, he probably wouldn’t have attempted it in the first place, especially as a lone ranger.
“Thirty years of your life is a pretty big chunk,” Caldwell said. “Pretty exciting that we did it and we’re to this stage, but if I were a young person and looked at that and somebody said, ‘Okay, 30 years and you’ll be able to do that.’ … Pretty tough for the individual to be able to keep something like that going. Lot of stamina.”
Biding his time before approval, Caldwell said he’s “nickel and diming” his expenses on the project; companies often film commercials on the property, weddings are hosted, “whatever it takes to keep the dream alive.”
Caldwell’s feathers aren’t ruffled by initial dismay over the White Wolf subdivision. He said he’s mostly been given a lot of respect for his dreams for the property, and he thinks it comes from his legendary status of being around for so long.
“We move into the [final] chapters here,” he told Moonshine Ink. “I’m excited about where we ended up going. I could see the whole ski-in village thing, but I can see this being pretty cool.”
And Caldwell finds comfort in crossing all his legal t’s regarding the wilderness proximity.
“We fall directly within the rights to do what we’re doing,” Caldwell said. “There’s nothing about being too close the wilderness … in legality, we sit on the side of the fence we want to sit on.”
PRE-WOLF: Caldwell’s development efforts aren’t the first for shuffling around acreage in White Wolf. In the early 1960s, a 123-unit subdivision known as the Alpine Vista Subdivision was proposed and again studied in the 1980s, but no rezone was ever completed. Ultimately, three lots within the Alpine Vista Subdivision were developed, which still exist as single-family homes on the White Wolf property today.
Main Image Caption: KING OF THE MOUNTAIN: Troy Caldwell is proposing a high-end private ski resort community for White Wolf. Caldwell, who’s spent over 50 years in the Tahoe region, said his dream for the property has been redirected a number of times, but he’s happy with how the project vision is turning out. Photo by Wade Snider/Moonshine Ink