Kings Beach, Calif. November 16, 2016 – At a jam-packed, nine-hour, emotional public hearing in North Tahoe yesterday, the Placer County Board of Supervisors voted to approve the biggest development ever proposed for North Lake Tahoe.
“The bad news is that Placer County sided with the narrow interests of an out-of-state developer and against the shared values of Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada,” said Tom Mooers of Sierra Watch. “The good news is that this is not the end of the road for our effort to Keep Squaw True.”
KSL Capital Partners’ “Village at Squaw Valley Specific Plan” proposes development of a size and scope North Lake Tahoe has never seen. And the Board approved entitlements for 25 years worth of construction, including: 1,493 new bedrooms spread among a series of highrise condo hotels; a 90,000 square foot indoor waterpark with waterslides, indoor waterskiing, wave riders, fake rivers, bowling, arcades, and more; and 21 timeshare mansions on undeveloped land in the mouth of Shirley Canyon, a popular hiking spot.
For KSL, a private equity firm based in Denver, the vote was a victory against what had looked like overwhelming opposition to their proposal, including every conservation group in the region and more than five thousand Tahoe-lovers who signed a petition to stop the project.
Hundreds of local residents, small business owners, and second homeowners packed the North Tahoe Events Center. KSL bussed in employees and supporters from Roseville – even offering free breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The first hour of the meeting featured a parade of KSL consultants and County staff, touting the project and urging approval.
Alex Fisch, Placer County Senior Planner, gave an overview of KSL’s proposal and application for development entitlements.
He described Squaw Valley as “somewhat blighted” and claimed destruction of viewsheds would not be a problem for new visitors, because they wouldn’t know what Squaw Valley had looked like before the construction of the new highrises.
Addressing issues of public safety wildfire danger, Fisch said that the existing parking lot is the current location for “shelter in place” emergency response and that KSL has “agreed to continue to provide that public service.”
Karin Schwab, representative for Placer County Counsel, addressed the project’s impacts on Lake Tahoe.
The project is estimated to generate more than 1,300 new daily car trips into the Tahoe Basin. Schwab shared news of an 11th hour agreement with the California state Attorney General to mitigate some of the impacts from that traffic.
She referenced a memo, signed yesterday, memorializing a backroom deal that commits the developer to payment of a fee to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. Fees are projected to total $440,000 – or $17,600 per year over 25 years of build out.
According to Schwab, in signing the agreement, the Attorney General agrees not to pursue litigation, and the County refuses to concede that there is a connection between traffic in the Basin and loss of lake clarity. The standing room only audience responded with jeers and boos.
KSL Andy Wirth frontman took to the podium made the case for their project, describing Squaw Valley as a “kick ass ski resort” but described the valley floor as a “sea of asphalt”.
When the Board opened the hearing to public input, scores of speakers lined up to address the Supervisors.
Andrew Hayes of Alpine Meadows pointed out the plan “does not honor our Olympic heritage.”
Katy Hover-Smoot read a letter from her grandfather, a 91-year old World War II veteran unable to attend in person. After the war, he found refuge in the mountains of Tahoe. He asked the Board to “act in the interest of future generations” and deny the project.
Shannon Eckmeyer of the League to Save Lake Tahoe pointed out ways in which the development undermines ongoing efforts to “Keep Tahoe Blue”. An environmental attorney by trade, she told the Board that the environmental impact report for the project was “the worst environmental review I’ve ever read.”
Eckmeyer urged the Board to pursue a more reasonable development plan, “What type of legacy do you want to leave?”
Tony Lashbrook, Town Manager of Truckee, pointed to one of the biggest issues in the region, “lack of housing is a critical problem.”
The KSL proposal, however, would make the workforce housing worse.
According to Lashbrook, KSL’s project “leaves 454 employees essentially homeless”
Local resident and business owner Jennifer Gurecki slammed the project for its “archaic cootie cutter approach that lacks true vision for an economically viable future.” A small business owner, she expressed concern that “increased traffic and construction would harm the tourist experience.”
“Outdoors are the backbone of this economy,” Gurecki said, “and this development threatens that.”
Fourteen-year-old Kate Gaffney spoke on behalf of a group of local high schoolers. She questioned the need for an indoor waterpark in her mountain home. “Don’t believe them when they say kids want a waterpark in the mountains cuz we don’t.
Craig Beck makes his living in Tahoe real estate and construction. A long-time local, he shared some wisdom with the Board of Supervisors. “I have learned that, if you want to see God, climb a mountain,” said Beck. “I’ve never heard anyone say: if you want to see God, go to a waterpark.”
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Alexis Ollar spoke on behalf of Truckee-based conservation group Mountain Area Preservation. “We have the best waterpark in North America seven miles down the road. It’s called Lake Tahoe,” said Ollar. “Please deny the project because Squaw and Tahoe deserve better.”
Isaac Silverman, Sierra Watch Staff Attorney, presented the Board of Supervisors with an alternative layout for responsible development and reminded them, “State law prohibits you from approving KSL’s proposal when a better plan is feasible.”
Some audience members spoke in favor of the proposed development.
Squaw Vice President Casey Blann urged approval so that North Lake Tahoe could “keep pace with development in South Lake Tahoe.”
Eight hours into the hearing, the Board of Supervisors was ready to discuss the question before them.
Supervisor Jim Holmes praised the developer for doing “a great job”.
Supervisor Jack Duran said it “was a very difficult decision”. But that there would be opportunities to further evaluate the project and “refine things as we move down the road.”
Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery, whose district includes Squaw Valley and North Lake Tahoe, explained why she was voting against the project. She said she “relied on head, heart, and gut to make a decision.”
And that, for her, the most basic question was, “What’s my job and to whom do I owe allegiance and responsibility in this situation?
People really do want change,” she continued. “They want to see a better village. They are just not convinced that this is the project that will get us to their goals.”
I heard very loud and clear, that the vast majority of my constituents don’t want this.”
When the Board concluded its discussion, Supervisor Montgomery made a motion “to reject the project in front of us.”
The motion died for lack of a second.
Supervisor Uhler moved quickly to approve the project, making as series of motions, each quickly seconded and approved with 4-1 votes, Supervisor Montgomery casting the lone ‘no’ votes.
Sierra Watch is committed to taking the project to court.
“Approval of this project was not only irresponsible, it was also illegal,” said Sierra Watch Staff Attorney Isaac Silverman. “California has robust environmental laws for exactly this situation, and we are confident that reason and justice will prevail.”