Sierra Watch: Conservationists take on Placer County for violations of the Brown Act

Auburn, Calif. December 9, 2016 – Sierra Watch took a first step this week to overturn Placer County’s approval of massive development in Tahoe’s Squaw Valley.

“Placer County’s approvals of KSL’s development were made in the face of overwhelming opposition, in spite of everything we love about Tahoe, and, also, in violation of the law,” says Tom Mooers, Executive Director of Sierra Watch.

As spelled out in a Notice to Cure or Correct letter, dated December 5, 2016, attorneys representing Sierra Watch detail how the Placer County Board of Supervisors’ approval of development entitlements for the Village at Squaw Valley Specific Plan violated the Brown Act, a state law intended to make sure that the public has the ability to meaningfully participate in legislative processes.

It’s the first in a series of legal challenges to the North Tahoe development project.

The alleged violations center on an eleventh-hour, back-room deal reached by the developer, Placer County, and the California State Attorney General.  Under that agreement, developer KSL Capital Partners committed to pay a fee, estimated to total $15,400 per year for the life of the project, in order to mitigate the development’s impact on Tahoe’s famously clear, blue water.

Conservationists questioned the efficacy of the agreement – and whether it would make up for the project’s impact on lake clarity.  As context, they point to a $400 million “Lake Tahoe Restoration Bill”, currently before Congress.

“If we could buy Tahoe’s clarity for $15,000 a year, we would have a long time ago,” says Mooers.

The Brown Act violation stems primarily from the public’s inability to be involved in – or even have any knowledge of – the deal.  It was announced, as a dramatic surprise, at the Placer County Board of Supervisors’ hearing on the proposed development.

Established as state law in 1953, the Brown Act is designed to guarantee the public’s right to meaningful participation in legislative processes – and to avoid surprises in public hearings.

For example, the law requires posting of an agenda including a description of each item of business to be considered at a legislative body’s meeting at least 72 hours prior to the meeting.  The deal regarding Tahoe’s clarity was not given any such notice.

According to the Sierra Watch letter, the County further violated the Brown Act by considering documents provided to it less than 72 hours prior to the meeting that were not made available to the public at the same time.

Specifically, on November 14, 2016, the Board was provided with a 107-page memorandum from Deputy County Counsel Karin Schwab.  But, under the Brown Act, documents that are “distributed to all, or a majority of all, of the members of a legislative body of a local agency by any person in connection with a matter subject to discussion or consideration at an open meeting of the body . . . shall be made available” to the public.

If something in writing is distributed less than 72 hours prior to a meeting – after the agenda is posted – it “shall be made available for public inspection . . . at the time the writing is distributed to all, or a majority of all, of the members of the [legislative] body.”

However, the November 14, 2016 memorandum to the Board of Supervisors was not made public at the time it was distributed to the Board, nor at any time before or during the meeting.

In order to comply with the law, Placer County must hold a new, properly noticed, public hearing on the development agreement to allow a real opportunity for public participation.

According to the letter, if the County does not cure or correct its violation, Sierra Watch will seek:

  • judicial invalidation of the Board’s actions;
  • judicial determination of the applicability of the Brown Act to the Board’s past violation of the Act;
  • declaratory or injunctive relief to prevent future such violations of the Act; and
  • costs and reasonable attorneys’ fees.

Sierra Watch’s action is the first step in what will likely be a long-term legal fight over the future of Squaw Valley.

KSL Capital Partners’ “Village at Squaw Valley Specific Plan” proposes development of a size and scope North Lake Tahoe has never seen, 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.

The project has generated increasing and unprecedented opposition from local residents, second homeowners, small businesses, and conservation groups.

“Placer County and KSL have been plowing full steam ahead into a legal disaster, and this is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Sierra Watch Staff Attorney Isaac Silverman. “We’re also poised to ask the courts to throw out the approvals because they are based on fundamental misunderstandings of our environment and our community.  If they hold a new hearing, and they should, that would be a great opportunity for Placer County to change course.”

Placer County has 30 days to respond to Sierra Watch’s letter.