Court blocks plans for housing project near Mt. Whitney

Times Staff Writer

In a victory for eastern Sierra Nevada conservationists, an appellate court has struck down Inyo County’s approval of a 74-acre housing development along the scenic road to Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states.

But the developer vowed Thursday to push ahead with his plan to sell 27 lots in the rocky sagebrush country outside Lone Pine, Calif., and predicted more legal wrangling in his three-year fight with a local environmental group.

“I’m going to hang in there until the end,” said Jim Walters, a medical ethics professor from Claremont and a Sierra Club member. “I’ve bent over backward to make this a quality development.”

On Monday, the state Court of Appeal in Riverside overturned county approval of Walters’ “Whitney Portal Preserve” on grounds that the project’s environmental impact report failed to adequately analyze whether it was feasible to swap the project site for federally owned property a few miles away, closer to an existing subdivision.

That alternative was favored by SRVA Advocates for Smart Growth, which argued that the county should concentrate new development around existing towns and that this one would create a dangerous precedent by allowing construction in a natural area with exceptional vistas.


The organization appealed to the state court after losing at the county Planning Commission, Board of Supervisors and Superior Court.

“The proposed development was clearly an unacceptable threat to the Mt. Whitney area and the Owens Valley,” Jennifer Fenton of the advocacy group said after this week’s decision. “We look forward to working with public agencies, private developers and local residents to find a win-win solution that also protects the resources of the Sierra Nevada.”

The county is planning a supplemental environmental impact report to address the appellate court’s concerns.

“The land-exchange discussion in the project’s EIR, which the court felt was not adequate, should be relatively easy to fix,” said Jim Reed, an attorney for the developer.

Walters estimated that the revisions would take several months. He predicted that the plan again would be approved by local officials, then appealed to courts by local activists. “I think we will prevail,” he said.

The appellate court said the environmental impact report did not adequately explore a possible trade for 100 acres of Bureau of Land Management property, a swap that could mitigate visual impacts for thousands of hikers, campers and others who drive to the trail head that is the starting point for climbing Mt. Whitney. The deficiency effectively precluded informed decision-making and public participation, the three-judge panel said.

Walters concluded that the BLM property was inferior to his land, which he purchased four years ago and which was part of a ranch used for getaways by Hollywood celebrities such as Douglas Fairbanks and Clara Bow.

One alternative to a land swap, said plaintiffs’ attorney Tamara Galanter, is selling the property to one of the land trusts that are interested in preserving it. “The question is: What is it worth?”