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Op-Ed: Kathryn Gray: Will Sugar Bowl Be the White Knight that Rescues Royal Gorge Cross Country?

Or Is It Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire for Donner Summit?


By: Kathryn Gray, Donner Summit

Feb. 20, 2009 - Since 2005, when Todd and Mark Foster, of Foster Enterprises, and Kirk Syme, of Woodstock Development, purchased Royal Gorge Cross Country and surrounding properties from Rancho Monterey, Donner Summit has had the sword of development hanging over its head. The Bay area developers, aka Royal Gorge LLC, who purchased the properties stunned the Summit with proposals for 950 + houses and condo/timeshares, commercial developments, hotels, artificial lakes, ski lift links to Sugar Bowl, and even a ridge top restaurant looming in the rugged viewshed of the North Fork American River.

Their big plans, however, failed to factor in the dearth of water at Donner Summit, the resistance by those who love the South Yuba River, and people whose drinking water comes from the headwaters of the South Yuba, to yet even more effluent and algae befouling the river, and the dogged insistence by Placer County, and associated fire agencies that additional egress to protect residents was nonnegotiable.

Factor in the economy, and Sugar Bowl's early 2008 withdrawal of their letter of intent to connect and support ski lifts for Royal Gorge LLC's proposed "ski camp", and it's been a long, dry year for any proposed development on Donner Summit. In fact, it's been over 6 months since Royal Gorge LLC has had any communication with Placer County Planning regarding development, large or small.

Of late, there's been a small, persistent buzz on the Summit that all the Royal Gorge properties may be hitting the market soon - whether as a fizzbo (for sale by owner), or a discretely placed ad under "Western Properties" in the Wall Street Journal. Speculation, which is steadily growing, has also shifted to the possibility that Sugar Bowl interests may be actively pursuing acquisition of all or part of Royal Gorge LLC's assets.

Donner Summit, in their dismay at the scale of the development proposed by the current Royal Gorge LLC ownership, had quickly rallied in defense, and had been very active in monitoring the development proposals. Donner Summit had welcomed the assistance of groups such as South Yuba River Citizens League, Sierra Watch, and others. The South Yuba River Citizens League had been, and continues to be be seen, as a particularly effective and involved group, as currently, except for a few months of the year when sewage effluent is sprayed on a local ski hill to evaporate, all treated sewage effluent is sluiced into the South Yuba River from the Donner Summit Public Utilities District treatment plant. DSPUD is currently in process for a NPDES renewal, and issues related to what they are allowed to dump into the river are at the forefront. Comment on the proposed permit closes March 6.

The mood on Donner Summit is subdued. "Once bitten, twice shy" is an apt description of feelings about the possibility of another new owner of the cross country resort, and the lands purchased from Rancho Monterey that had been slated for development. Sugar Bowl, which in past years had garnered a mediocre "C" rating from Ski Area Citizens, has not demonstrated a long term concern for the entire Summit; there is a danger that any purchase by them may be seen as an attempt at expansion, not a move to save the more sensitive areas of Donner Summit from inappropriate development. Indeed, their apparent lack of awareness of the need to protect the South Yuba River, especially in regards to DSPUD's violations, and the large algae problem, engender concern about whether, if they purchase Royal Gorge Cross Country, the Summit will finally have the stewardship it deserves, or, sadly, just more of the same.

So, if Sugar Bowl is, as rumor indicates, considering expanding their footprint on Donner Summit, will the locals sigh, and say, "At last my prince has come?" Or, cynical urchins that we are after the last few years of spin, will we stand back and consider whether it's better to be in the frying pan, or the fire?

It's instructive to look at the history of Martis Valley, which certainly engenders conflicting responses, and, also, the more recent Tejon Ranch agreements, where many major environmental groups eagerly jumped in with the developers in a mutual back-patting experience, conveniently eliding the fact they've promised not to sue, have to raise umpteen billions to purchase what would have been undevelopable land anyways, and, oops, somehow forgot the California Condor, an endangered species.

Fortunately, Center for Biological Diversity didn't sign the shiny big agreement, and stands ready to fulfill its stated charter to protect endangered species! We'd have to establish an irony free zone to comment on what all those other purported environmental groups are thinking about, particularly in light of the fact water for Tejon Ranch will take water from the Delta, and plunking an enormous community in the middle of an area better suited for a national park certainly won't help global warming.

But, back to Donner Summit. Will Sugar Bowl buy the works, and we'll all have a lovely "win-win" experience? That remains to be seen. If sensitive areas like Van Norden Meadow, the headwaters of the South Yuba River, and watersheds for local lakes are protected, and development is restricted - and, the South Yuba isn't forced to remain an incredibly scenic sewer - then maybe things will really turn out for the better.

However, if this is just one more example of development clothed in recycled "intelligent growth" clothing... Donner Summit will just be out of the frying pan, into the fire.


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