Squaw Valley pushes forward with development, gondola projects
OLYMPIC VALLEY, Calif. — Sierra Watch’s attorneys argue Placer County fell well short of fully analyzing the impacts of Squaw Valley’s planned 25-year village redevelopment project, particularly when it comes to fire safety, traffic and resulting environmental effects on the Lake Tahoe Basin.
And the nonprofit organization, which has led an opposition campaign “Keep Squaw True,” recently took that case to court. That lawsuit is one of two filed by Sierra Watch over Placer County’s approval, with another alleging supervisors violated California’s Brown Act.
Both cases were argued in courtrooms in May, while another planned project — a gondola linking Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows — was also the topic of a public hearing in late May.
“Just because the project is not located in the Basin, doesn’t mean impacts on the Basin shouldn’t be considered,” Daniel Selmi, a Sierra Watch attorney, said in a May 24 hearing in Placer County Superior Court. “The County’s obligation is to examine the impacts. The village will generate some traffic and some of that traffic will venture into the Basin … an environmentally stressed area. It’s obvious. There’s not some sort of wall between the two. Lake Tahoe is the draw up there.”
Selmi and fellow Sierra Watch attorneys outlined what they deemed as deficits in the meeting requirements under the California Environmental Quality Act, arguing Placer County approved the project despite failing to consider the full impact on the region and its residents through a thorough analysis.
Whit Manley, representing Squaw Valley, said the project’s environmental impact report met all requirements, and that Squaw Valley went beyond its obligation under law to mitigate the impacts identified.
But it’s no surprise Sierra Watch isn’t satisfied by the report, saying the organization doesn’t seem to recognize efforts to mitigate issues outlined, which has included scaling back the scope of the project from 1,877 residential units to 1,295 in 2011, and then again to the 850 units eventually approved.
“I recognize the petitioner thinks that’s still too many,” Manley told Judge Michael Jones. “I don’t know what’s acceptable to them. But what matters, ultimately, is what is acceptable to the Board of Supervisors.”
He said the court should not be asked to weigh which side has “better evidence,” but whether the supervisors’ conclusion — approval — was within the boundary of the law, as opposed to “second-guessing people elected to make these decisions.”
Full FIRE Danger known?
The project’s environmental impact report raised more questions than it answered, said Amy Bricker, a Sierra Watch attorney who addressed impacts on fire safety with added traffic to evacuation routes, already estimated to take several hours to move everyone out of the area. She said while a “shelter in place” approach discussed in the report might provide safety to some, it doesn’t fully consider the project’s impact on a site designated a very high Fire Hazard Severity Zone.
In his opposition brief to Sierra Watch’s suit, Manley wrote “the Board found that the Project would not interfere with adopted emergency evacuation plans, and that people or structures would not be exposed to a significant risk of loss from wildland fires.”
“The question is how bad is it going to be?” Bricker said in court. “The best-case scenario is sitting in your car for five hours … just to get over to (State Road) 89.”
“(Even with shelter in place) there’s no analysis of how bad the situation is going to be, how long would they be there? … These are all unanswered by the analysis. It jumps to the conclusion that (the project) does not create a safety risk. How did it reach that conclusion?”
Each side now awaits word on the judge’s ruling, which could take up to 90 days from the May 25 hearing on the matter (See this story at SierraSun.com for copies of all court filings in the cases).
BROWN ACT ALLEGATION RESOLVED?
A separate suit filed by Sierra Watch alleging Placer County’s supervisors violated California’s Brown Act by not properly notifying the public in entering what it describes as an “11th-hour agreement” by the Squaw Valley to pay a Tahoe Regional Planning Association Air Quality Mitigation Fee.
Sierra Watch said a memo on the agreement was not available to the public within 72 hours of a Nov. 15, 2016 meeting where the project was approved by supervisors. The memo wasn’t emailed to the Board of Supervisors until 5:36 p.m. Nov. 14. A copy of the memo was placed at the Clerk of the Board of Supervisors Office in Auburn, meaning the document was not available to the public prior to the meeting during the next day’s normal business hours.
A “Proposed Statement of Decision” was released by the court on May 9, with Jones determining “the County did not violate (the Brown Act) in considering approval of the Development Agreement.”
And, Jones continued, “(Sierra Watch) suggests several alternative ways in which the County might have alerted members of the public to the existence of the (memo) following its distribution to the Board,” Jones wrote. “But nothing mandates the use of alternative methods … Petitioner fails to establish a violation of the statute.”
Isaac Silverman, a Sierra Watch attorney, said the organization won’t comment on the matter until a final ruling is made.
Clayton Cook, deputy county counsel, said Placer County has been clear it did not violate the law in reaching the agreement.
“Everything has been done within the Brown Act and the letter of the law,” Cook said. “It appears the court ultimately sided with us.”
Brian Hamilton is editor of the Sierra Sun newspaper in Truckee. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Per the agreement, Caesars will continue to operate Harrah’s for the first half of 2020 before it’s redeveloped into a non-gaming hotel and mixed-use development.