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Appeals court blocks long-sought expansion of Squaw Valley ski resort

Sign marking 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley Ski Resort
A sign commemorates the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley Ski Resort in Olympic Valley, Calif.
(Haven Daley / Associated Press)

A California appeals court has blocked the expansion of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows ski resort because the development plan fails to adequately address potential harm to air and water quality, as well as increased noise levels and traffic in the area.

A three-judge panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeals granted parts of two appeals brought by Sierra Watch against the Lake Tahoe-area resort. It reversed a state judge’s 2018 ruling and ordered the lower court in Placer County to issue a new ruling specifying additional actions that the resort must take to ensure the new development’s compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act.

In addition to other concerns, the panel said Tuesday that existing plans fail to adequately address climate change or impacts on regional wildfire evacuation plans surrounding the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics.

Opponents say the development planned across 94 acres would double the population of Olympic Valley, six miles north of Tahoe City. They say 40% of the new traffic generated would travel into the lake’s basin, increasing the amount of sediment transported to the lake and raising nitrate emissions — two major threats to Tahoe’s world-renowned clarity.

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Tom Mooers, Sierra Watch’s executive director, said the appellate court’s decision “marks a major milestone” in the decade-long effort to block the expansion first proposed in 2012.

Alterra Mountain, the Denver-based owner of Squaw Valley, wants to build 850 units in a series of high-rise condo hotels in what is now the resort’s parking lot. The expansion includes plans for a roller coaster and a 90,000-square-foot indoor water park.

Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, near Lake Tahoe, plans to drop the derogatory term ‘squaw’ from its name.

“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.”

Justices Vance Ray, Cole Blease and Elena Duarte granted the appeal Tuesday.

In the second related appeal, the justices agreed with Sierra Watch’s argument that Placer County’s Board of Supervisors violated public meetings requirements when it approved parts of the expansion plans. But it stopped short of vacating the county’s action and instead instructed the lower court to issue a new ruling addressing the conservation group’s concerns.

Dee Byrne, president and COO of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, said in a statement Wednesday night that it was disappointed with the ruling, but noted that it upheld most of the environmental review attached to the development plan.

At Lake Tahoe’s Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, it’s not location, location, location, it’s terrain, terrain and more terrain: a combined 6,000 acres of some of the most dependably snowy, scare-yourself-silly inbound skiing and snowboarding among U.S. destination resorts.

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“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,” she said.

The county’s 2016 review approved by a state judge concluded that the expansion would add an average of 1,353 daily car trips — an additional 23,842 vehicle-travel miles on busy days. It acknowledged that it could take more than 10 hours to evacuate the area via the single access road during a wildfire.

The appellate court’s 53-page ruling noted that the developer had argued that the ski resort lay outside the Lake Tahoe Basin and that the expansion project “would not result in storm-water runoff or other pollutants draining into the lake.”

But it said the county admitted after the formal approval of the environmental impact report attached to the formal expansion plans that increased vehicle-miles traveled contribute to pollution of the lake.

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The county “acknowledged the connection between vehicle-miles traveled and Tahoe’s clarity after the final Environmental Impact Report was prepared, revealing six days before the board of supervisors approved the project that increased [vehicle-miles traveled] and its related effects — tailpipe emissions and crushed abrasives — have a direct role in lake clarity,” Tuesday’s ruling said.

“But none of that was disclosed in the [environmental impact report]. And so ... the public had little if any ability to evaluate the relevance of that change to Lake Tahoe. That was improper.”

The court also agreed with Sierra Watch’s argument that the impact report underestimated wildfire evacuation times by wrongly assuming emergency responders would provide traffic control at key intersections in the narrow, forested canyon along the Truckee River leading to Interstate 80.

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It noted that the fire chief later clarified to the developer’s consultant that its assumption was “highly unrealistic” because any “available public safety personnel would be tasked with much higher-priority tasks, and even then, the numbers of public safety personnel would likely be inadequate.”

Squaw Valley attempted to downplay the issue by noting that the fire chief ultimately supported the evacuation plan prepared for the project, the court said. But the report itself continued to present “a misleading estimation of evacuation times that prevented informed decision-making.”


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