Environmentalists Fight Tahoe Development Project

By MATTHEW RENDA

TRUCKEE, Calif. (CN) – A consortium of environmental groups have sued county officials and developers over the approval of a residential and commercial development near Lake Tahoe, claiming the approval relied on bad science and is therefore illegal.

Sierra Watch, Mountain Area Preservation and the League to Save Lake Tahoe filed suit in Placer County Superior Court on November 10, claiming Placer County violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) when it approved a development project brought forward by Mountainside Partners.

“The development would have severe, irreversible impacts on the project site and surrounding North Tahoe region, including gridlock conditions on State Route 267, destruction of Martis Valley natural resources, and degradation of Lake Tahoe and its famed clarity,” the groups say in the complaint. “These impacts, however, were not adequately evaluated or mitigated by respondents’ public planning process, as required by CEQA.”

The project calls for the construction of 760 residential units and about 56,000 square feet of commercial space, on 7,000 acres of previously undeveloped forest land near the crest of the Tahoe Basin Rim by Highway 267, which connects Truckee to the north shore of Lake Tahoe.

No aspects of the project encroach on the Tahoe Basin watershed, which means the project avoided the rigorous development-approval process presided over by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. The agency was created to restrict growth in the basin that exploded in the 1960s and adversely impacted the lake.

However, the groups claim that the project’s proximity to Lake Tahoe, vehicle miles traveled and other traffic impacts will affect the lake. Those cumulative impacts were not properly considered by the Placer County Board of Supervisors when they approved the project on a 4-1 vote in early October, the groups say.

The lone dissenting vote was cast by Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery, who represents the Tahoe portion of Placer County. The county extends from the lake, through the foothills down to the fringe of the Central Valley.

“There’s a reason why everyone from local residents to the Attorney General opposes this project,” said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch. “It’s a nightmare project and Tahoe deserves better.”

Along with failing to consider traffic impacts to the basin, the cumulative impacts of other projects in the Tahoe area – including the recently approved large-scale expansion of the Squaw Valley Ski Resort – will have a negative effect on the lake, according to the groups.

They say the county rezoned the property from timberland-production zone to residential in an arbitrary manner inconsistent with its own planning documents.

Blake Riva, managing partner of Mountainside Partners, points out the rezone is a parcel of the development’s complicated development and conservation arrangement.

The parcel across the highway — about 6,300 acres — was previously zoned for residential development. However, Riva has agreed to retire that parcel via a conservation easement, in exchange for the opportunity to develop the 2,000-acre parcel on the west side of the highway.

“The Martis Valley West Project is a combined conservation and development plan that serves to complete a remarkable vision,” Riva said after Placer County’s approval. “The project relocates future development to an area adjacent to an existing resort, significantly reduces the amount of allowable density, protects highly coveted open space in the heart of Martis Valley and provides outdoor recreation opportunities for the community.”

The east parcel is adjacent to the Mount Rose Wilderness, and many in the conservation community previously expressed enthusiasm regarding the opportunity to retire a parcel that would mean a large swath of the Martis Valley and the land north of Lake Tahoe would be protected indefinitely.

But environmentalists have increasingly questioned whether the trade-off is worth the project’s potential impacts to Lake Tahoe. Furthermore, many environmentalists in the basin have expressed consternation that the project will become a precedent for developers to large projects on the fringe of Lake Tahoe, where they can take advantage of proximity to the lake without having to contribute to its protections like they would if developing inside the basin.

“By developing the project just outside the Tahoe Basin, the project proponents are attempting to take advantage of the beauty and attraction of Lake Tahoe without committing to any protections to ensure the lake is preserved for future generations to enjoy,” said Alexis Ollar of Mountain Area Preservation. “Allowing this project to proceed would set a terrible precedent that a developer may simply ignore their project’s significant threats to the lake.”

Meanwhile, the expansion at Squaw Valley was approved Tuesday night with Montgomery again casting the lone dissenting vote. Squaw Valley is located off Highway 89, the other main artery that connects Interstate 80 and Truckee to the north shore.

Similar to the Martis Valley Project, the Squaw Valley project is located on the fringe of the Lake Tahoe Basin and not subject to the region’s development approval process. Likewise, groups such as the League to Save Lake Tahoe expressed concern over the impacts that visitors would have to the lake.

Sierra Watch quickly indicated another similar lawsuit will follow.

“Approval of this project was not only irresponsible, it was also illegal,” Sierra Watch staff attorney Isaac Silverman said in a prepared statement on Tuesday.  “California has robust environmental laws for exactly this situation, and we are confident that reason and justice will prevail.”

The Martis Valley lawsuit was filed by Amy Bricker of Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger.