UPON ARRIVAL: This animation gives an idea of how the built-out village would look as one enters. For more renderings visit Placer County’s Village at Palisades Tahoe Specific Plan page.
Editor’s Note, Jan. 18 at 5:18 p.m.: Placer County added a second, additional physical location to allow for public comment during tomorrow’s planning commission meeting. Folks can make their public comments in person at the North Tahoe Event Center (8318 N. Lake Blvd. in Kings Beach) for the duration of the meeting.
It’s been eight years since the environmental impact report for the Village at Squaw Valley Specific Plan Project was circulated by Placer County, and seven years since the project was approved. After a lawsuit that dragged on for five years resulted in the rescinding of project approvals last fall, the Tahoe/Truckee community may be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu that the original project — now called the Village at Palisades Specific Plan — is back before the county.
After the California Court of Appeal ruled that the EIR was deficient in four areas, Palisades Tahoe decided to resubmit the original 2016 plan, which it says is necessary to create a more vibrant village experience, while addressing the faulty analysis of the four issues. The company argues that an entirely new EIR is unnecessary because conditions have not changed since 2015. Project opponents, however, say that this approach not only ignores new information that has come to light over the past eight years about climate change and wildfire, but is also a missed opportunity to work with the community to create a project that addresses these impacts in a more meaningful way and produces a development that is more acceptable to the public.
“They [Palisades] will tell you it’s a simple project, they need to do some environmental review,” said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch, which filed the lawsuit against the Village at Palisades EIR. “But we will argue that their path to new entitlements is a lot steeper than that, because yes, they need to correct what the court of appeals found wrong, but they also need to adequately assess the development impacts on a range of issues for which circumstances have changed.”
Is 2023 the same as 2015?
After the Placer County Board of Supervisors approved the village project in 2016, Sierra Watch filed a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) lawsuit against Placer County over its certification of the EIR, asserting that the environmental analysis was inadequate, particularly with regards to impacts to Lake Tahoe and the Basin. Sierra Watch lost that lawsuit in the Placer County Superior Court in 2018 but appealed. In 2021, the appeals court partially reversed the trial court’s decision, finding that more environmental analysis was needed on four issues: water quality impacts to Lake Tahoe, traffic impacts to the Basin, evacuation times for wildfire, and noise impacts during construction. The court did not require the project to be changed.
In November 2022, the Placer board of supervisors rescinded all project approvals as ordered by the court “unless and until the County complies with CEQA by correcting the deficiencies in the EIR found by the Court of Appeal,” according to the county’s notice of availability of a partially revised draft EIR.
After losing the appeal case, Palisades officials said they had two choices over how to proceed — either appeal to the California Supreme Court or respond with amendments to the EIR. After five years of litigation, they felt the second option was the most sensible.
“We decided to take that course because we are proud of the project and the most prudent course of action was to move forward,” said Palisades Tahoe COO and President Dee Byrne. “We are very anxious to move forward.”
This eagerness stems from a sense that the Village expansion is needed in order to provide more lodging in the valley — the Village sells out consistently on winter weekends — and to provide more of a well-rounded experience for visitors and locals.
“We need to progress. We need to complement the mountain with a village experience that is relevant,” Byrne said. “A conversation I have that works with people is sharing our commitment to doing the right thing at the right time at the right scale, and at the same time helping it grow into the premiere resort it can be.”
Palisades is confident in the original plan because, it claims, it was so well-vetted. The ski resort held 300 public meetings over three years and reduced the size of the project 65% as a result. The 2016 plan encompasses 94 acres, 90% of which is on already disturbed land like the parking lot and includes an 85-acre village with up to 850 units and 1,493 bedrooms that will be a mixture of hotel, condo hotel, fractional ownership, and timeshare units, as well as 297,733 square feet of commercial space. There is also a 90,000 square-foot Mountain Adventure Camp whose exact makeup has not yet been determined, but is slated to be a type of indoor recreation center with extensive pool features.
“We felt confident that we made it through the trial court, and there were seven issues and the court only came back with four,” Byrne said. “It’s the most studied plan in county history.”
In resubmitting the original project, Palisades decided to only focus on the four concerns identified by the courts and not revise the entire EIR.
“There is no known new information that would result in new or substantially more severe environmental impacts since certification of the EIR 6 years ago,” Palisades stated in the revised draft EIR. “Therefore, this REIR [Revised EIR] addresses only those issues raised in the Ruling. No other chapters or portions of the 2016 EIR are addressed in this REIR as no new information or new circumstances exist that would warrant revision of these other chapters or portions.”
Friends of Olympic Valley, however, strongly disagree. The group, which was originally formed in response to the size of the Village at Squaw Valley Specific Plan, comprises concerned citizens and long-time Olympic Valley residents.
“The following ‘severe environmental’ social and economic changes clearly warrant a completely new EIR review,” asserts the Friends’ website, listing extended multi-year drought conditions, increased risk of wildfire, and strains from increased tourism as examples of changes that have occurred since 2015.
Mountain Area Preservation Executive Director Alexis Ollar was wishful that Palisades would go further than what was required by the courts.
“I had hoped post-appeals court decision that it would have created an opportunity to say, ‘what is a better approach to looking at this project, and maybe there is a way to reduce these impacts so they are not so severe, and Olympic Valley is not just in its own isolated bubble,’” she said. “But it looks as though they did the bare minimum, they are just addressing the letter of the law.”
Real change or technical fixes?
Palisades views the four issues identified by the court as “technical deficiencies,” according to a four-page project Q&A provided to Moonshine Ink.
In addressing impacts to Lake Tahoe clarity, the ski resort states in the revised EIR that because of modern vehicle emissions controls, VMT is no longer thought to have substantial adverse effects on Lake Tahoe clarity or water quality, even though the project is expected to add an additional 12,406 average daily vehicle miles traveled (VMT) to the Basin. Palisades also alleges that the long-held belief that sediment enters the lake from roadways is no longer completely accurate.
Based on TRPA’s threshold evaluation reports, Palisades argues in the revised draft EIR that “there is a limited correlation between VMT and roadway sediment loads. Roadway management practices … have been shown to be the most effective means of limiting roadway generated sediment from entering Lake Tahoe. Consequently, VMT in the Tahoe Basin generated by the Village at Palisades Tahoe Project would have little effect on roadway sediment reaching Lake Tahoe.”
MAP takes issue with this claim.
“Saying simply we no longer think an increase in VMTs impacts air and water quality doesn’t seem satisfactory to me and is not real data,” said Sophia Heidrich, MAP advocacy director. “This doesn’t pass the sniff test.”
Sierra Watch officials said they were also surprised by this new analysis.
“In the first round of environmental review, they attempted to dismiss this really important issue,” said Mooers. “Even more shocking is that they are still doing it. In the revised environmental review, they say they don’t even have to look at how cars impact lake clarity.”
MAP’s Ollar agrees. The major concern is that car emissions emit nitrogen, which causes algal growth in the lake, thereby reducing lake clarity.
“This goes against the science about what we know, that particulates from VMTs add to air and water quality [decline],” Ollar said. “It’s decades of science.”
With regards to the deficiency in wildfire evacuations analysis, Palisades argues that the fault lies in a technicality. In 2015, the Squaw Valley Fire Department (now Olympic Valley Fire) stated that it was unsure if it had enough personnel to staff an evacuation. However, Palisades notes that it’s not the fire department’s responsibility to manage evacuations but that of the county and sheriff’s office, along with other organizations like CHP. The revised EIR also relies on 2015 information that Olympic Valley is not likely to see a large wildfire due to large amounts of granite and that a mass evacuation of the valley is unlikely.
In case of a wildfire, Palisades’ parking lot would be made available for shelter-in-place. The project also requires an additional fire station to be built at the west end of the valley, and the ski resort already pays for augmented staffing at the fire station during winter months.
Palisades officials contend that recent wildfires, like Caldor Fire in South Lake Tahoe, have shown that it’s possible to safely evacuate people. They also note that the village’s peak capacity is during winter, not fire season.
“A lot of thought about fire has changed since the project was approved,” said Jason Hansford, Alterra vice president of development (Alterra is the parent company of Palisades). “With the Caldor Fire, with all the advance noticing and spot cameras, people really know before something catastrophic happens.”
However, environmental groups say that it’s negligent not to take into account changes in wildfire behavior over the past decade. The Caldor and Dixie fires, both in 2021, were the first fires in California history to burn from one side of the Sierra to the other.
“This is one of the things we will be fighting over, that it is irresponsible for Placer County to ignore what we have learned about wildfire,” Mooers said. “Ten years ago, fires didn’t crest the Sierra Nevada. Now we learned the hard way how dangerous it is to have fires in the Sierra where we don’t have the infrastructure to evacuate.”
Twenty-thousand people did safely evacuate from South Lake Tahoe during the Caldor Fire, but they were stuck in hours-long traffic jams.
Palisades seeks to address the transit issue by bolstering TART routes. This includes creating a community facilities district to fund the expansion of transit capacity.
“Certainly TART needs financial support to expand,” said Hansford, pointing out that Palisades already funds TART for the stop in Olympic Valley, and helps pay for the Mountaineer, a free, on-demand shuttle servicing Alpine Meadows and Olympic Valley. “We have to make sure there are enough transportation routes.”
One of the most contentious parts of the project is the Mountain Adventure Camp and the possibility of a large indoor water park. Although the facility has not yet been programmed — Palisades said there are 24 different options they could put inside the building such as a bowling alley, fitness facility, and climbing wall — water will definitely be a part of it.
“We have heard loud and clear from visitors that they want pool features,” Byrne said. “It’s an expectation, really, in the hospitality industry.”
Palisades insists that some type of waterpark is necessary to give customers an alternative to skiing during bad weather when most of the mountain shuts down or for non-skiers.
“Yesterday we had 75 patrons on the ski hill. There really was nothing to do,” Hansford said, referring to the heavy rain day on Jan. 9. “We do believe water is an important element.”
But some residents say a water park is antithetical to Tahoe’s mountain culture.
“A water park is going to change what we think of as the mountain experience,” said long-time Tahoe City resident Robb Gaffney. “They can do water parks in other places. Coming to Olympic Valley is a unique experience driven by weather. Why homogenize it with something that can be found elsewhere?”
“I remember the Mountain Adventure Camp being the poster child with what’s wrong with the Village application,” she said. “It’s completely at odds with the values many of us hold for Tahoe. We have an amazing water park already and it’s called Lake Tahoe … Keep the climbing wall, the bowling alley, but do we need to have a water park, do we need a lazy river? No, we don’t. What happened with having a community conversation? The indoor waterpark is what rubbed so many people the wrong way from the beginning.”
Placer County Supervisor Cindy Gustafson, who was not on the board when it voted on the project in 2016, said she is receiving lots of emails from constituents who have concerns about the project. The planning commission will hold a public meeting on the revised draft EIR on Jan. 19, but Gustafson said she doesn’t expect it to reach the board until the fall.
“What [Palisades] did address was what the court mandated them to do,” Gustafson said. “It’s unfortunate it took the court so long to come out with that. Nonetheless, that’s what [Palisades] is choosing to do. Now it’s up to us to hear and see if it’s adequate in the situation we are in now.”
The Placer County Planning Commission meeting on the Palisades development will take place Jan. 19 at 10 a.m. The meeting was originally scheduled to be held at the North Tahoe Event Center but due to weather, it has been moved to Auburn. Click here for information on the Placer County Planning Commission. Click here for the Jan. 19 Zoom live stream. Comments on the revised draft EIR may be sent to email@example.com up to 5 p.m. on Jan. 30.