The Placer County Planning Commission voted this summer on two major local development projects, one on the southwest side of Martis Valley between Truckee and Kings Beach (Martis Valley West), the other in the center of Squaw Valley (Squaw Valley Village). Both projects will provide jobs, but will also bring thousands more people to new home sites and recreation facilities. Because they will dramatically boost the region’s population and traffic congestion and, by extension, air pollution, they both have generated strong opposition locally, enough so that the two meetings attracted hundreds of audience members and lasted much of the day.
So if the projects have so many similarities, why did one get a thumbs-up and one a thumbs-down? Why did the Planning Commissioners vote on July 7 to reject the Martis Valley West project, but vote Aug. 11 to approve the Squaw Valley Village development?
Answers can be found in how they differ, particularly in terms of project location and financial benefits to the county. On a deeper level, the Squaw decision underscores the contrasting visions people have for North Tahoe/Truckee’s future and the community’s growing frustration with Placer County.
“[The board of supervisors’ decision regarding] Squaw will be very telling about the relations between this community and the county. Division could be difficult to heal if it’s approved.”
~ Steve Kastan
How Did It Happen?
The planning commissioners held the first half of the Martis Valley West hearing on June 9. After a six-hour meeting with about 300 people in attendance, the group continued the meeting to July 7 for further discussion. In July, after four hours of deliberation, it voted 5-2 to deny the development.
“The real surprising vote was Martis Valley West,” said Steve Kastan, Tahoe field representative for Placer County Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery. “I don’t ever recollect the commissioners voting down a project.”
In contrast, after a 10-hour Aug. 11 meeting on the Squaw Valley Village, the commissioners took about 30 minutes to deliberate before voting 4-2 in favor of the project. There were around 400 people at the start of the meeting, but by 8 p.m. that number had dwindled to around 80. Placer County staff and developer Squaw Valley Ski Holdings presentations took up the first three hours of the hearing.
“They barely even asked questions,” said Alexis Ollar, Mountain Area Preservation executive director. “There was very little deliberation and then one commissioner just started making motions. We were all shocked and disappointed because the commissioners did such a thorough job with Martis Valley West asking questions and diving into issue areas.”
Tom Mooers of Sierra Watch agreed.
“It was astonishing how fast the motions came after hours of public testimony,” he said. “It took minutes. It made it look like they had already decided. It was a different approach than Martis Valley West, which they broke into two meetings.”
Planning Commissioner Miner “Mickey” Gray was one of two commissioners who voted against recommending approval for the Squaw proposal.
“I found the EIR to be flawed because it didn’t include effects on the Basin regarding traffic,” he said. “It was not adequate. I felt the preponderance of the community was saying it was a plan they did not want to get behind.”
He was referring to the fact that of the 98 people who spoke at the Squaw Valley Planning Commission hearing 58 (60 percent) were against the project, while 40 (40 percent) were for it. Additionally, around 90 percent of the individual comments on the draft environmental impact report (EIR) were critical of the project, according to Placer County Senior Planner Alex Fisch.
Gray, who was appointed by Supervisor Montgomery, said Larry Sevison, the planning commission at-large representative for east of the Sierra Crest, may have been the swing vote on Squaw. Sevison is a North Tahoe resident and Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Governing Board member, and Gray said for those reasons he was surprised by Sevison’s vote to approve the development. (Both Sevison and Gray voted to deny Martis Valley West.) With only six members present (Commissioner Fred Arcuri was absent), a tie would have meant a rejection of the Squaw Village project. Sevison did not respond to Moonshine Ink’s requests for an interview.
Gray believes the commission’s brief deliberations on the Squaw Village project could be because the project has been on the table for almost five years. “I don’t know if anyone could have said much more to influence the voting,” he said. “It could be frustration on the part of the commission to have a big project take so long to get through.”
Location, Location, Location
Observers of both developments say the different locations of the two projects have a lot do with the commissioners’ votes. The proposed Martis Valley West development, set to include 760 homes, 22,000 square feet of homeowner amenities, and 6.6 acres of commercial space, would be built on 662 acres in an undeveloped forest. By contrast, 90 percent of the new 94-acre Squaw Valley Village — which proposes 850 units with 1,493 bedrooms and more than 200,000 square feet of commercial space, along with a 90,000 square foot Mountain Adventure Camp — would be constructed on already disturbed land.
“The idea of redeveloping a parking lot gave [the Squaw project] a different status versus virgin territory,” commissioner Gray said.
Ski Holdings President and CEO Andy Wirth said as much at the Aug. 11 hearing.
“At the base is 82 acres of parking lot,” he told the commissioners. “We are not super prideful of 50-year-old asphalt that sits at the base of the mountain. It’s not part of our soul, our character. It can be something better.” (Editors note: SVSH later confirmed that the parking lot is 84 acres.)
This was reiterated by the Ski Holdings environmental consultant, Adrienne Graham.
“The advantage is that there is a great deal of disturbed area, so the impacts you would see in a forest or greenfield does not occur here,” she said.
However, the project proposes some development on undisturbed land — up to 15 fractional cabins built near the entrance to the popular hiking spot Shirley Canyon. An additional six cabins could be built on the east side of Olympic Valley Inn, also close to Shirley Canyon.
“Rezoning Shirley Canyon and stuffing homes into its mouth shows developers are out of touch,” Sierra Watch attorney Isaac Silverman told the commissioners. “Help us preserve our way of life. This is our heart and soul and your decision today will tell us if all these people matter.”
Another factor that could have influenced the commissioners to approve the Squaw Valley project are the financial and public benefits that are part of the developer’s agreement with the county. At the hearing, Michele Kingsbury from the Placer County CEO office announced that the park and trail fees for the project would be $2.7 million over the course of build-out, as well as $3.6 million for public parks and recreation facilities, and $2 million dedicated to the restoration of 9 acres of Squaw Creek. During the 30-year lifespan of the development, Squaw will also pay $2.9 million for transit operations, as well as a one-time fee of $87,000 for capital transit expenses, and $75,000 annually for free TART fares for project employees. There is also $10,000 in annual funding that would go to the U.S. Forest Service for trail maintenance and $80,000 for a Regional Initiative Fund for environmental, open space, and trail improvements in Olympic Valley. These are all above and beyond what the developer already has to pay to meet its obligations.
On top of that, in early August Squaw Valley Real Estate announced the establishment of the Squaw Valley Foundation to support local environmental and other community initiatives. It will receive an estimated $15 million generated through a 1.5 percent transfer fee at the time of any sale.
“The goal is to fund $15 million through initial sales and $2 million annually for resales,” attorney Richard Molsby told the commissioners. “After 25 years we hope to have $65 million in the foundation.”
According to Ollar of MAP, over 20 years of build-out (the terms of the development agreement is 20 years with an option for two five-year extensions) all of these fees will add up to approximately $15 million, some fees up-front, annually or during different phases of construction.
“This is the county’s way of extracting what they want out of the developers,” she said. “All of those fees are attractive to Placer County, and they took precedent over the true impacts of the project. To say there are enough [financial] benefits to allow impacts to transpire is unacceptable.”
The project fees for Martis Valley West are not quite as extensive as they are for Squaw Valley Village, but they are no small potatoes, either. They include $5 million in recreational amenities, $68,000 annually to regional transit, and a $59,700 one-time payment for capital transit expenses. But the project’s biggest benefit would be its proposed open space conservation, whereby it would transfer 760 residential units and 6.6 acres of commercial space from the East Parcel to the West Parcel. The entire 6,376-acre East Parcel would be preserved as open space in perpetuity, creating 50,000 acres of contiguous open space from Martis Valley to Mt. Rose Wilderness.
Despite the huge public benefit of preserving the open space, Kastan thought the Squaw Valley project presents greater advantages.
“Squaw has more benefits — a 96-acre parking lot [sic] that needs redevelopment,” he said. “What’s there is stuck in the 1960s; things could be improved … Martis Valley West has much more serious concerns with evacuation and traffic on Highway 267.”
Blake Riva, senior partner with Martis Valley West developer Mountainside Partners (formerly East West Partners), said he is optimistic that the board of supervisors will approve the project once county staff clarifies certain “misunderstandings” regarding traffic, fire, life safety, and emergency evacuation plans. The supervisors will vote on the project on Sept. 13.
“We believe Martis Valley West, which is a combined conservation and development plan, is the right plan for Martis Valley,” Riva said, “and we believe it should be approved based on its merits.”
Who Knows the Region’s Heart and Soul?
For the first time at a public hearing, Squaw Valley Ski Holdings had a large visible presence: supporters were wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with “squawtomorrow.com” (the Ski Holdings’ project website that launched in July) and white hats carrying the Squaw logo. Opponents and Sierra Watch members were wearing purple “Keep Squaw True” shirts that have been available since last summer. The ski resort provided food and bus transport for employees to attend the meeting.
Robb Gaffney, a member of Sierra Watch and an avid project opponent, said he believes the ski holdings’ “marketing strategy is to get close to opponents.”
Squaw Valley spokesperson Liesl Kenny disagreed. “All employees who wished to show support for the project were encouraged to attend,” she wrote in an email to Moonshine. “Of the Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows employees in attendance at the meeting, 30 percent have been working with the resort for over a decade. Hourly employees who were scheduled to work were not asked to forfeit their hours to attend, and bus transportation was offered as an option due to limited parking.”
In its Squaw Tomorrow campaign, the ski resort emphasizes the need for redeveloping infrastructure at the aging facility and developing other attractions besides skiing to encourage visiting. At the Aug. 11 hearing, CEO Wirth highlighted the recent purchase of Whistler Blackcomb by competitor Vail Resorts and said, “We need to stay competitive.”
Gaffney said he felt the planning commission’s vote shows a lack of interest in the will of the people.
“We’re seeing a failure in the local democratic system that is sending a ripple of distrust through the community,” he said. “The large majority spoke against the project … Placer County has so far not demonstrated a true understanding of what this community is about, its heart and soul.”
Does the State’s Opinion Matter?
Many observers were surprised that the Aug. 9 letter from the California Attorney General’s office to Placer County expressing concerns about the project’s environmental impact report didn’t make more of an impression on the commissioners.
The letter states: “Because of the proximity of the proposed development to Lake Tahoe, we are concerned about the impacts the development will have within the Tahoe Basin. We are particularly concerned with the project’s resulting increases in vehicular use and traffic within the Basin … The EIR has not adequately analyzed or mitigated these impacts.”
League to Save Lake Tahoe board member David Blau echoed this at the planning commission meeting.
“The Attorney General’s letter highlights 15 deficiencies in the EIR,” he said. “Lake Tahoe has virtually been ignored in the entire analysis. The EIR looks at Squaw Valley and northward. Lake Tahoe might as well be on the moon. It’s offensive to read the EIR that says Lake Tahoe is someone else’s problem.”
However, Whit Manley, Squaw Valley’s environmental lawyer, said the EIR is a fair document.
“If anyone looks at this objectively they will come to the same conclusion,” he said.
League Executive Director Darcie Goodman Collins was disappointed that the Planning Commission, which rejected Martis Valley West due to concerns over traffic impacts to the lake, Highway 267, and ease of evacuation did not use the same rationale with the Squaw Valley proposal.
“I was surprised they didn’t use the same logic in the Squaw Valley decision,” she said. “There are similar threats from both projects.”
Commissioner Gray agreed with the Attorney General’s concerns that the EIR did not effectively analyze traffic impacts on the Basin, and worries that if the project is approved it will wind up in court. Sierra Watch has said it will sue Placer County if the board of supervisors green-lights the Squaw Village development.
Richard Drury, a lawyer for Tahoe Residents United for Sustainable Squaw Tourism — a group of residents critical of the draft EIR — told the commissioners: “When the Attorney General tells you the EIR is fatally flawed … that’s a warning siren you should stop. If it gets to litigation, Placer County is going to lose.”
Kastan is worried that if the Squaw Village is approved, it could damage Placer County’s relationship with the Tahoe community.
“[The board of supervisors’ decision regarding] Squaw will be very telling about the relations between this community and the county,” Kastan said. “Division could be difficult to heal if it’s approved.”
The Placer County Board of Supervisors will vote on Martis Valley West at its Sept. 13 meeting at Lake Tahoe, and will most likely vote on Squaw Valley in November.
We are particularly concerned with the project’s resulting increases in vehicular use and traffic within the Basin … The EIR has not adequately analyzed or mitigated these impacts.
~ Kamala Harris, California Attorney General