By MATTHEW RENDA
OLYMPIC VALLEY, Calif. (CN) – An environmental organization focused on conservation in the Sierra Nevada Mountains sued one of the most famous ski resorts in North America Thursday, claiming its expansion plans are bad for the environment.
Sierra Watch’s lawsuit, filed in Placer County Superior Court, alleges that the environmental evaluation of Squaw Valley USA’s proposed project was inadequate and failed to address the detrimental environmental impacts the project would have on the site and surrounding region.
The Placer County Board of Supervisors has already approved the project.
“The project would result in severe, irreversible impacts on the Project site and surrounding North Tahoe region, including gridlock conditions on State Route 89 and into the Tahoe Basin, destruction of natural resources, urbanization of a rural mountain valley, and degradation of Lake Tahoe and its famed clarity,” Sierra Watch’s 23-page complaint states. “These are precisely the kind of impacts CEQA [The California Environmental Quality Act] is designed to reveal and, if possible, avoid.”
Squaw Valley’s ambitious project calls for the redevelopment of the famed ski resort, which is tucked into a canyon near the crest of the Sierra Nevada mountain range only miles removed from the North Shore of Lake Tahoe.
The plan calls for the construction of about 1,500 hotel and residential units, a 9,000-square-foot indoor park and 21 timeshare units near the mouth of Shirley Canyon.
“The proposed development would mean that our time in the mountains is spent in traffic or in a highrise or rafting down a fake, indoor river,” said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch, in a prepared statement. “That’s not what Tahoe is about.”
Mooers added that the 21 timeshares slated for construction at the mouth of Shirley Canyon will compromise undeveloped land that functions as a popular hiking destination for locals and visitors alike.
“They [Squaw Valley] just get a lot of things flat wrong – like traffic,” Isaac Silverman, counsel for Sierra Watch, said in a statement. “The county somehow projected that KSL’s indoor waterpark, which would be as wide as a Walmart and more than twice as tall, would generate only 58 car trips per day. That kind of fuzzy math is not only an affront to common sense, it’s illegal under state law.”
But Squaw Valley argues the redevelopment investment will actually alleviate the transportation problems Sierra Watch claims will ensue if the project is allowed to proceed, claiming its on-site lodging will mean more guests will stay in the valley rather than drive from surrounding hotels.
“The plan will commit $20 million in one-time and annual fees to transit initiatives, including electric in-village shuttles, alternative-fuel in-valley shuttles and enhanced regional transit initiatives, representing Olympic Valley’s largest transit investment ever,” the resort says on a webpage it built to explain its rationale behind the expansion.
Sierra Watch has not only expressed doubt about whether these can ameliorate traffic problems, but also complained that the environmental analysis performed by Placer County and its consultants in advance of the project approval was insufficient and violated the California Environmental Quality Act.
Andy Wirth, CEO of Squaw Valley Ski Holdings LLC, which operates the resort, expressed confidence the environmental analysis was conducted in a manner consistent with CEQA.
“The environmental studies on the project were performed by third party professionals hired by the County and conducted to ensure the project would adhere to CEQA statutes and guidelines,” he said in an emailed statement.
Sierra Watch contends the reports failed to consider impacts to water supply, flora and fauna, air quality, climate change, visual elements such as night sky, public safety, utilities and other elements.
For example, Sierra Watch said the county’s environmental analysis did not consider a baseline when examining whether the project would impact the area’s water supply.
“The DEIR relied on unsupported modeling methods, improperly relied on compliance with regulatory requirements to conclude impacts would be less than significant, and failed to explain the impacts that would arise should the planned restoration of Squaw Creek be unsuccessful,” Sierra Watch says in its complaint.
Squaw Valley asserts there is “enough water in the basin directly under The Village at Squaw Valley Specific Plan property to serve both the project and the future cumulative demand within Olympic Valley.”
Wirth adds that the expansion “has been one of the most thoroughly studied projects in the County’s history, and was reduced by 50 percent based on community input and feedback collected at over 400 community meetings over five years.”
The ski resort also notes that 90 percent of the proposed development will occur on sites with existing development, such as asphalt parking lots. The resort similarly touts its donations of millions of dollars to environmental initiatives in Olympic Valley, including the restoration of Squaw Creek.
“We are confident that the courts will ultimately rule in favor of the project and on behalf of Placer County,” Wirth said.
Sierra Watch is asking Placer County to set aside its approval of the development, and for a permanent injunction preventing Squaw Valley and its parent company, KSL Capital LLC, from pursuing implementation of the project.
This marks the second time in as many months that Sierra Watch has sued Placer County in relation to a development decision.
The organization joined the League to Save Lake Tahoe and others in filing suit in October alleging that Placer County erred in its environmental analysis when it approved the Martis Valley West Project.
That project calls for the construction of about 760 residential units and a commercial area on a previously undeveloped parcel of land just west of Highway 267. Although it is located near the rim of the Tahoe Basin, no part of the development delves into the basin, which allowed it to avoid undergoing the rigorous Tahoe Regional Planning Agency process.
Sierra Watch said part of the rationale for pursuing that suit is that neither project considered the cumulative impacts of traffic to the region as a result of both projects.
Officials with the League to Save Lake Tahoe also expressed concern that the two projects could signal a trend in which developers seek to build large projects right on the outskirts of the Tahoe Basin, thereby using the lake as a magnet for potential customers without having to undergo the rigors of the TRPA approval process or contribute to restoring the health of Lake Tahoe.