An appeals court has given a win to Sierra Watch’s legal battle against Placer County and Alterra Mountain Company — halting a development project opposed by some residents of the region for over five years.In November 2016, the Placer County Board of Supervisors voted to approve Alterra’s plans for “The Village at Squaw Valley” in a 4-to-1 vote. The single naysayer, Jennifer Montgomery, represented the only part of the county in Tahoe – District 5. Montgomery is no longer on the board.Sierra Watch then appealed.According to Sierra Watch’s Executive Director Tom Mooers, the conservation-based nonprofit filed numerous legal challenges — specifically targeting the validity of the project’s Environmental Impact Report — in response to the county’s decision. The five-year battle was punctuated by a Placer County Superior Court ruling in favor of the county in August 2018, followed by a successful appeal attempt in California’s Third District Court of Appeals on Tuesday.
“Sierra Watch has been at this for 10 years — since the private equity developers first showed up, purchased the valley and started pursuing their reckless plan to transform Tahoe with irresponsible development,” Mooers said.
The Placer County Counsel’s Office said it was still reviewing the ruling.
“We are in the process of reviewing and assessing the rulings, as well as evaluating the next steps,” said the Placer County counsel, according to Public Information Officer Stephanie Herrera. “As a result, the county is not prepared at this time to make a statement or participate in interviews on the topic.”
The court determined the project’s EIR, generated by county contractors, grossly underestimated the effects increased traffic would have on evacuation procedures and lake pollution. Beyond the tangible, detrimental affects to the region’s ecology, Mooers said Alterra’s renderings of the potential “village” were not designed to commune with or complement Tahoe’s existing topography in any way.
In the specific plans for “The Village at Squaw Valley,” Alterra proposed a 90,000-square-foot “Mountain Adventure Center,” a 96-foot indoor water park featuring slides, rivers, indoor waterskiing and indoor skydiving. Two hundred seventy-four thousand square feet of commercial development, and 1,493 new rooms were proposed on an eight-acre parcel of land — about six city blocks.
Mooers attributed the success of Sierra Watch to the grassroots effort energizing the nonprofit’s legal battle.
“The success in court this week is due to thousands of people joining us over the course of a decade in a shared commitment to protect our mountain,” Mooers said. “The best way to protect the places we love is to get people involved in sticking up for them. That might be putting a bumper sticker on your car or showing up for a public hearing — these are different parts of a long-term strategic effort that is working.”
Sierra Watch spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars on this effort,” raised through individual donations from those who care about the lake’s natural beauty, Mooers said.
“We would argue that our mountains are worth every penny,” Mooers said.
Mooers said the traffic concerns in the Tahoe region were valid when Sierra Watch began the legal battle in 2016. Five years later, Mooers said the traffic is clearly a huge issue in the area without the proposed increase in concentrated residential capacity.
“The arguments that we made in 2016 against Alterra’s development are sadly even more true now,” Mooers explained. “Issues of fire danger, climate change, drought, workforce housing, Tahoe clarity, traffic, have all gotten worse in the last five years, making Alterra’s project look even more reckless.”
Mooers said Placer County’s failed oversight in the EIR process may be due to what he called its general pro-business attitude.
“Placer County has been a very pro-development county for decades,” Mooers said. “For them I think it was business as usual to rubber stamp this proposal. I don’t think they expected so many people to rise up in defense of this far end of Placer County where Tahoe happens to lie.”
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union and Sierra Sun newspapers. She can be reached at email@example.com. This story first published Aug. 26 and is republished here with permission.