By Alexis Ollar
Few community members understand the positive impact land use advocacy has played in the Truckee/Tahoe region over the past three decades. Conservation victories are often the things you can’t see, like a Kmart in Historic Downtown Truckee, or high-density development in Martis Valley and Donner Summit, or car and RV dealerships along State Route 267 at Joerger Ranch. These are the victories of the land use advocacy organization Mountain Area Preservation thus far.
As executive director for MAP, I have witnessed firsthand how much can be done when a group of people are dedicated to protecting open space and advocating for responsible development, which continues to underpin our work to this day.
In the early 2000s, there was a major uptick in development proposals, an era known as the “Martis Valley Wars.” Placer County was updating the Martis Valley Community Plan, many luxury resort housing projects were being proposed, and the Village at Northstar was also in the lineup. For those involved civically at the time, it was terrifying!
MAP was engaged with five lawsuits all at once, fueled by an all-volunteer board and no paid staff. This crew of volunteers banded together to challenge resort development, organize the community, and fundraise for MAP membership. Only the attorneys and consultants were being compensated. It is a testament to our mission and track record that the organization still stands after 34 years.
While no one likes to get lawyers involved and legal challenges are definitely not sexy, the results of our advocacy efforts have created lasting environmental and community benefits in the region.
“MAP’s conservation work has been the single most important effort to protect the natural resources and unique community character of Truckee during the last 30 years of ‘hair on fire’ growth and development,” says Stefanie Olivieri, a MAP founding board member. “MAP’s heroic work has lasting benefits for the people of Truckee and its visitors with trails, open space, less light pollution of our night sky, workforce housing, protection and restoration of habitat, rivers, lakes, woodlands, and meadows, and the beloved creatures that inhabit them. Remarkably and fortunately, MAP’s work continues to this day unabated.”
These lawsuits are laborious and contentious, but in my mind it’s worth it when the end result is land use prioritized for the fabric of our community. An additional benefit is that in many of these legal settlements, the community ends up partnering with developers. Millions of dollars have been put back into the region through the efforts of land use advocacy, passionate individuals, and the will of developers.
Why ask developers to fund open space, restoration, and workforce housing? Because it’s what we value in Truckee/Tahoe — the environment and the community! Collaboration is key, and anything can happen when conservationists and developers are willing to work together.
Tools used during negotiations a few times during the Martis Valley Wars era that have proven in the long-term to be effective are real-estate tax transfer fees. These taxes from the sale and resale of property fund grants for open space, restoration, and workforce housing.
A transfer fee fund was created during legal challenges with Martis Camp, the luxury development on the outskirts of Truckee. From a settlement with the developer came the creation of the Martis Fund, a California 501c3 charitable nonprofit, whose money is generated from real estate transfer fees. Established by the founders of MAP, Sierra Watch, and DMB Highlands, the fund has generated millions of dollars that have been channeled directly into protecting the environment and serving the community through grants to qualifying nonprofits. Martis Fund has stepped in to provide significant capital for a broad range of projects that is more flexible than that from state agencies, and at the same time, helps encourage additional dollars from sources like the state and federal government.
Transfer fees also have played a significant role in supporting our conservation partners, like the Truckee Donner Land Trust, to preserve land in perpetuity. Leveraging these funds has led to victories in crucial open space campaigns in the Martis Valley, such as the Waddle Ranch Preserve and the future acquisition of Canyon Springs.
The real estate transfer fee funds were then and still are a brilliant concept 15 years after their inception, all of which started from MAP’s land use advocacy efforts. Yet they are not the only tool in our box. Our negotiations have led to requirements for the developer to build or carve out areas for workforce housing, such as with Schaffer’s Mill and the 56 units of affordable housing in Meadow View Place.
Currently, we are still in litigation on Martis Valley West, a development project that was proposed for the south side of Martis Valley on the rim of the Tahoe Basin. Because of wildfire danger and evacuation, the courts have thus far agreed with MAP and our conservation partners that development on the property isn’t wise and was not properly analyzed under the California Environmental Quality Act. The legal challenge is ongoing; through it all we’re looking to negotiate on behalf of the community and environment.
Legal challenges aside, two major tools in MAP’s box are community organizing and education. Many people don’t know that there have been four failed development proposals on the Canyon Springs property. And very few people have the time to read thousands and thousands of complex planning documents. We used to say, “We go to the meetings so that you don’t have to.” But now we know that we do need citizens to know what’s in these documents and to show up at public planning meetings. It’s powerful and meaningful to see a room full of people who are knowledgeable about land use planning and advocacy and willing to stand up and use their voice.
It is truly remarkable, creating a legacy of ongoing stewardship for the region. When people are aligned with a mission, willing to roll up their sleeves to get to work, and armed with a variety of tools, historic results are possible. While some of our victories are intangible — such as the Kmart that never got built — the accompanying benefits of a healthy environment and vibrant community are tangible and a win-win for all. And to think, it’s born out of geeky land use controversy.
~ Alexis Ollar has been the executive director of Mountain Area Preservation since 2012.