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Monday, May 20, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Environmentalists win court victory over ski resort expansion attempt

An appeals court sided with an environmental organization, agreeing that a California county failed to adequately notify the public that it had reached a deal with the ski resort the night before a major meeting.

(CN) — Environmentalists won a major legal victory in their bid to stop a major redevelopment of Olympic Valley after a California appellate court found the decision-making body in charge of approving the project had misled the public.

California’s Third Appellate District ruled that the Placer County Board of Supervisors violated the Brown Act when it revised an agenda item related to the redevelopment of the ski resort formerly called Squaw Valley. Though the resort is referred to as Squaw Valley in the proceedings, it is undergoing a name change because “squaw” is “widely accepted to be a racist and sexist slur,” per a statement from the resort’s president. 

“The board, in its agenda, said it would consider a specific agreement at its meeting (namely, the development agreement that the planning commission had recommended), but in the end, the board never once considered that agreement,” the court wrote in its 28-page decision. “It instead only considered a materially different agreement (namely, the revised development agreement that Squaw staff prepared the night before the meeting), rendering the agenda inaccurate and misleading.”

The case involves a plan by Alterra to dramatically overhaul the ski village attached to the famed ski resort by building 1,500 hotel and condominium rooms along with a 90,000 square-foot indoor recreation center. 

Critics of the plan, such as a plaintiff environmental organization called Sierra Watch, say the project would expand the resort’s development footprint, incur years of environmentally onerous construction, deplete scarce water resources and dramatically increase car trips to the isolated mountain valley. 

“Today’s decision marks a major milestone in the multi-generational commitment to conservation in the Sierra Nevada,” Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch, said in a statement sent to Courthouse News. “And it’s a great example of how we can work together to protect the places we love.”

After the Placer County Board of Supervisors approved the project in 2016, Sierra Watch sued the public agency for violating the California Environmental Quality Act and the Brown Act. The present case centered on the Brown Act. 

“Alterra was hell-bent on bringing Vegas-style excess to the mountains of Tahoe,” Mooers said. “It was a direct threat to everything we love about the Sierra.”

Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows President & COO Dee Byrne said the decision was disappointing but will not deter the resort from pursuing its efforts to redevelop the village.

" It is important to note that at the end of the day, the legal system does not approve developments," Byrne said. "That development approval decision remains with Placer County. This is a ruling on the analysis, not on the development plan itself."

Sierra Watch claimed that the public agency came to a deal with the California Attorney General’s Office at the eleventh hour, the night before the public meeting, and therefore radically altered the nature of the proposed project and failed to properly notify the public. 

“The same day the county posted the agenda, two deputy attorneys general met with county counsel and Squaw’s counsel about the project,” the court wrote. “At the meeting, the two deputy attorneys general asked the county to require Squaw to pay an air quality mitigation fee to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA).”

The TRPA was concerned the project would create additional vehicle trips to the area, which they claimed could hurt the ecology of Lake Tahoe. Ecologists have found the large amount of vehicles traveling through the basin creates emissions and runoff that degrades the famed clarity of the lake.

Even though Olympic Valley is outside the Lake Tahoe Basin, the project was expected to increase traffic and impacts on Lake Tahoe, so the agency charged with its care asked for mitigation fees to be used for various projects aimed at preserving clarity at Tahoe. 

At first, Placer County declined. But the owners of the ski resort agreed to pay about $440,000 in mitigation fees to be used to reduce traffic and perform other restoration projects, according to court documents. 

However, because this deal was struck the night before the meeting, Sierra Watch argued it changed the nature of the project in such a way that it rendered the agenda that noticed the meeting irrelevant. 

“Sierra Watch reasoned the county’s agenda was insufficient because it did not ‘announc[e] . . . that [the board] was to consider a substantive amendment to the proposed Development Agreement’ — namely, the addition of the TRPA-fee provision,” the court wrote. “We find the Board’s agenda was, as a result of this change, rendered inaccurate and misleading.”

Moors said the victory is only the latest step in an ongoing battle. 

“This is great news for Tahoe and everyone who has stood with us to defend our mountain values,” Sierra Watch's Mooers said.  “But our goal was never to win a lawsuit.  Our goal has always been to protect our Sierra resources for future generations. And we feel like we’re just getting started.”

But the resort said it is only getting started too.

“We are committed to carrying out a responsible development in the valley, one that brings higher-paying jobs, increased tax revenue, more affordable housing and millions in future investment in support of conservation and transit to Olympic Valley and the region," Byrne said.

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