Sierra Watch in the News
Did you see Sunday’s Reno Gazette Journal?
Squaw Valley is the top story.
Journalist Jeff DeLong covers key components of the growing debate over the future of Squaw and the Tahoe Sierra, including interviews with:
- Sierra Watch: “Squaw Valley is the next place where the big important questions about development, conservation and the Sierra will be asked and hopefully answered in a way that makes sense,” said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch;
- KSL developers: “We are environmental stewards. We care very deeply about the mountain landscape,” Andy Wirth, Squaw’s president and chief executive officer said. “It’s part of who we are.”; and
- Local homeowners: “We’re not trying to stop it. We’d like to see it scaled back,” said Jon Shanser, an Olympic Valley resident and a founding member of Friends of Squaw Valley.
You can read it all below or at: http://www.rgj.com/article/20130728/BIZ05/307280009/Squaw-Valley-expansion-plan-raises-questions-economic-growth-vs-sustainability
There’s even a video feed at the paper’s website, featuring KSL and Sierra Watch perspectives.
As always, please don’t hesitate to contact me directly with any questions or comments.
Squaw Valley expansion plan raises questions
of economic growth vs. sustainability
Written by Jeff DeLong
Andy Wirth, president and CEO of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, stands with a model of the proposed expansion at The Village at Squaw Valley. He is standing by the northwest corner of the resort. / Tim Dunn/RGJ
At Squaw Valley, the iconic Sierra resort famous for its soaring mountaintops and expert ski terrain, differing visions are driving debate over some big-time changes proposed for the future.
Squaw’s owners plan a major increase in the size of the resort’s base village, adding more than 1,000 condominium units, new stores and restaurants and constructing an indoor recreation center complete with an artificial river.
They say it’s an improvement needed to attract big-spending visitors from across the country and overseas, boosting Squaw’s standing to a global destination that can truly compete with major resort properties in Colorado and Utah.
Others argue it’s simply too much and that the project proposed by Squaw Valley Real Estate LLC would forever change the face of a place both exceptionally beautiful and of historic significance.
“Squaw Valley is the next place where the big important questions about development, conservation and the Sierra will be asked and hopefully answered in a way that makes sense,” said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch, a conservation organization working to scale back the resort’s ambitious plans.
Rather, it’s all about restoring the place to the splendor it enjoyed as host of the 1960 Winter Olympics and providing a major economic boost to the region overall, said Andy Wirth, Squaw’s president and chief executive officer.
“With long-term thinking, there’s no doubt the phrase ‘the renaissance of Squaw Valley’ is appropriate,” Wirth said. “It is our intent to restore Squaw Valley to a top destination in North America.
“We’re so very proud of who we are and what we are, but we think more is possible.”
Upgrades on, off slopes
Back when Colorado-based KSL Capital Partners acquired Squaw in late 2010, the company immediately announced plans for $50 million in improvements that Wirth said were necessary for the 60-year-old resort to be nationally competitive in modern times.
“The only thing changing here is everything,” Wirth said at the time, promising significant upgrades on and off the ski slopes.
Many are now completed. New restaurants are open. New ski lifts are installed, including the high-speed, six-person Big Blue Express, designed to improve access to beginning and intermediate terrain at a place most famous for its adrenaline-charged expert runs.
Some $5 million was spent to improve snow-making capability at Squaw and adjoining Alpine Meadows, which combined operations in 2011 to produce the largest ski resort in the nation in terms of skiable acres. Another $20 million in improvements are planned at Alpine.
Shortly after taking Squaw’s helm as its new CEO, Wirth cited the need to significantly expand the amount of quality lodging available to vacationers visiting the Olympic Valley area, calling that move a key ingredient needed to boost the resort’s standing. He promised action in the near future.
That time is here.
“It’s a promised action and we’re doing it,” Wirth said. “We have a dearth of viable lodging units compared to our competitors. To be successful, we need to add to the quality and variety of that lodging.”
That vision has taken physical form in shape of a detailed scale model — itself nearly the size of a small patio — installed in a room at Squaw’s village at a cost of more than $100,000 and available for public viewing since late March. The lighted model provides a bird’s-eye view of new buildings, including multistory condo complexes, townhomes and cabins totaling 1,093 housing units and 2,184 bedrooms. The project would be built in four phases over 12 to 15 years, with construction of the first phase possibly starting in 2015.
Gazing at the model, it’s clear the existing Village at Squaw Valley is surrounded on all sides by what could come.
‘Unlike anything seen’
“It’s hard to look at that model and not be shocked at the scale of development,” said Mooers of Sierra Watch. “It’s unlike anything we’ve seen here in the Sierra. This is really on a scale like nothing we’ve ever seen.”
Sierra Watch was founded in 2000 amid concern over plans to build more than 6,000 housing units on both sides of California 267 in scenic Martis Valley between Truckee and Lake Tahoe. The group played a primary role in discussions that ultimately resulted in a major downsizing in the scale of development there, preserving nearly eight square miles as undeveloped open space.
Last year, the organization was involved in successful efforts to raise millions of dollars to preserve the 3,000-acre Royal Gorge property atop Donner Summit in what supporters described as “one of the most important conservation victories for the Sierra in a generation.” The property had been eyed for development of a 950-unit resort.
The coming debate over Squaw’s future, Mooers said, is the next big one for the region.
“What’s proposed here is a massive development out of scale of Squaw Valley itself,” Mooers said. “There’s likely a great opportunity to do some very positive development here. But I think there’s been a disconnect between the desire to put Squaw Valley on par with other destination resorts and the attempt to cram in as many condos and hotels as is physically possible. You can tell they’re trying to put as much as they can in every corner going up as high as they think they can get away with.”
Many Olympic Valley residents are concerned about the proposed development, with the issue central to an emerging effort to incorporate the area into a new town, critics said.
“We’re not trying to stop it. We’d like to see it scaled back,” said Jon Shanser, an Olympic Valley resident and a founding member of Friends of Squaw Valley.
“I’m very worried it’s going to end up like a city rather than a rural alpine village,” Shanser said. “We want development that is environmentally sustainable, economically viable and aesthetically compatible with the community character and culture.”
In a June 24 letter to planners and the Placer County Board of Supervisors, Olympic Valley resident Judy Carini complained that county officials are not following established protocol in collecting community input regarding Squaw’s proposal.
That position is in contrast to what Squaw representatives characterize as an “unprecedented and exhaustive” community outreach effort involving more than 200 meetings with local organizations, groups and individuals.
The county’s performance, Carini wrote, “shows a definite bias toward accommodating the applicant, KSL, rather than the public, and gives the applicant an unjustifiable advantage over the public interest.”
She and others suspect county leaders will be swayed by huge tax revenue that could come with the project, estimated at $36 million annually.
Big benefits cited
Other area residents suggest Squaw’s plans may be just what’s needed.
One of them is Richie Goldman, president of the Creekside Homeowners Association, a 25-lot neighborhood at the base of Olympic Valley near California 89.
Goldman said Squaw’s plans will provide a boost for the economy, generate substantial employment and help evolve the resort to a year-round vacation destination.
“Generally speaking, it’s progress and good progress,” Goldman said. “Bringing the resort into the 21st century is a good idea. It’s going to be something that helps everyone.”
From Wirth’s perspective, critics to a large degree are missing the point. Changes planned at the village are less development than redevelopment, he argues.
New residential and retail buildings will be located on what is now a 100-acre parking lot mostly surrounding the existing village, with parking in the new village to be provided at the ground level of some of the structures.
“I can’t find anybody that says that parking lot is aesthetically pleasing,” Wirth said. “This is infill development of extremely disturbed land.”
Environmental benefits could also be a big plus, among them the planned development of an effective mass transit system long needed for the area, Wirth said. Also planned is a major restoration of Squaw Creek, converted prior to the 1960 Winter Olympics into what he described as essentially a “large irrigation ditch” that regularly flushes sediment into the Truckee River. The restoration would involve a return of natural channel meanders that would allow sediment to settle without reaching the river.
At a place with a history that includes the illegal removal of thousands of trees to make way for a new ski lift and a raid in 2000 by federal agents searching for evidence of environmental crimes, things have changed and changed in a big way, Wirth insists.
“We are environmental stewards. We care very deeply about the mountain landscape,” Wirth said. “It’s part of who we are.”
Jennifer Montgomery, the Placer County supervisor who represents the Squaw Valley area, is awaiting specific proposals for a project she and colleagues would have to approve. Montgomery expects those details will come in a draft environmental impact report to be filed sometime early in 2014.
Montgomery said Squaw has already substantially scaled back its proposal, including the height of condo towers, based on the public’s concerns.
The supervisor said she will want questions answered about water supply, traffic and the project’s economic sustainability. She sees a real positive over the planned restoration of Squaw Creek.
Concerns over the project are real and people, whether they support or oppose it, feel strongly, said Montgomery.
“They’re pretty cranked up about it,” she said. “I think the project has some real potential upsides for the community and some real potential downsides for the community.
“We just need to make sure it fits in with the character of what’s already there. That’s what I’m hearing from everyone.”