Not Enough Water For A Waterpark

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Contact: Tom Mooers (530) 265-2849 x200 

October 25, 2023

NOT ENOUGH WATER FOR A WATERPARK

There are a lot of reasons why Alterra Mountain Company’s proposed development in Olympic Valley would be bad news for Tahoe. It would add too many cars to our existing traffic mess, pollute Lake Tahoe, make our workforce housing crisis worse, and create a wildfire safety nightmare.

Also: there’s simply not enough water.

For decades, would-be developers, local residents, and water providers in Olympic Valley have raised concerns about limited supplies and even sought alternative sources of water. No solution has been found; instead, in an era of drought and climate change, the problem just gets worse.

Pictured: Olympic Valley and Palisades Tahoe

Pictured: Olympic Valley and Palisades Tahoe

And to move forward with another round of entitlements for Alterra’s old proposal – based on an outdated Water Supply Assessment – poses a direct threat to anyone with a faucet in the valley, let alone to our creeks, meadows, and watershed.

Here’s some background on the issue of water supplies in Olympic Valley and some of what Sierra Watch is doing to protect existing residents and natural resources.

Limited Supplies in a Narrow Mountain Valley

Olympic Valley (formerly Squaw Valley) lies between Lake Tahoe and the Town of Truckee. The glacially-carved watershed runs 2.5 miles long and less than half a mile wide. Its waters flow down the mountain and through Washeshu Creek east to the Truckee River. 

Water supplies depend on annual recharge from each winter’s snowpack– notoriously difficult to predict and increasingly tough to rely on. 

Alterra’s Village at Palisades Tahoe Specific Plan, first proposed back in 2011, would transform Olympic Valley and remake Tahoe-Truckee with development of a size, scale, and scope the region has never seen. It would include a series of high-rise condo hotels and a 90,000-square-foot indoor waterpark with artificial rivers, indoor water-skiing, and North America’s tallest indoor waterslide. The waterpark would attract 300,000 visitors annually.  

 Pictured: Scale Model of Proposed Development

Pictured: Scale Model of Proposed Development

All told, the project would add 3,300 new daily car trips to North Tahoe roads. And it would demand more than 78,000,000 gallons of water annually.

Claims of Sufficient Supplies and Attempts to Find More Water

The limits of local water supplies has long been a concern in the valley – for residents, for the ski resort, for would-be developers. 

And, even though the waters of the Sierra are enjoying a boost from last winter’s snowpack, there is a growing understanding that, in an era of drought and climate change, we’ll have less snow in the decades to come.

Over the last twenty years, there have been sporadic efforts to seek water from other sources to increase supplies, none of which have succeeded – as development pressures drive up demand.

In 2003, the Valley’s primary water provider, Olympic Valley Public Services District (OVPSD) filed for rights to the Truckee River. 

In 2009, OVPSD launched an effort to fund and build an eight-mile pipe to draw “supplemental and additional” water from Martis Valley and pump it into Olympic Valley.

In a 2014 request for $36 million to fund the Martis Pipe, the water district claimed, “Drilling new production wells within the Olympic Valley has become increasingly more difficult due to the limited capacity of the (Olympic) Valley aquifer to yield sufficient quantity and quality of potable water.” That effort ran aground; the request was withdrawn in 2017.

Yet meanwhile, in 2015, as part of the planning process for Alterra Mountain Company’s proposed development, the OVPSD issued a Water Supply Assessment, claiming the local aquifer could – without new supplies – meet all projected 2040 demands without seeking any appropriative water right permits from the State Water Resources Board.

Based in part on the findings of that assessment, Placer County granted development entitlements to Alterra (then KSL Capital Partners) in 2016. But, after a court challenge by Sierra Watch, those entitlements were rescinded in 2022. Alterra responded by seeking a new round of entitlements for the exact same project, with no changes in its size – or in its projected demands on water.

Placer County issued a Revised Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the project in November 2022. Incredibly, that document seeks to rely on the old 2015 Water Supply Assessment. It’s a head-in-the-sand approach that puts Olympic Valley – its residents and its resources – at risk.

Earlier this year, more than 2,600 non-profits, regulatory agencies, and individual citizens provided comment letters on the Revised Draft EIR. More than 99% expressed opposition; many – including the OVPSD – pointed to limited water supplies as a key concern. 

Truckee River Water for an Indoor Lazy River?

As we wait for County decision-makers and Alterra to respond to those comments, Sierra Watch is hard at work. We’re engaging experts, increasing awareness, and ensuring that new infrastructure doesn’t encourage – or subsidize – Alterra’s proposed development.

Case in point: this summer, Sierra Watch protested an old application to divert new water from the Truckee River to potentially serve future development in Olympic Valley. 

In 2018, the OVPSD renewed its 2003 application to the State Water Resources Control Board for rights to the Truckee River, seeking to “divert water from the Truckee River system” for “municipal” use.

The request for new rights acknowledged the limited supplies of local water, claiming “the surface water would supplement existing groundwater supply in the District (OVPSD) to provide a reliable supply for planned future populations, and add redundancy in the state of an emergency.” 

Sierra Watch engaged experts to research and file a protest to the OVPSD’s application in June, pointing out that under California law, any water diverted from the Truckee River must be for a beneficial use.

We argued that, instead, diverting Truckee River water for municipal use could encourage the construction of Alterra’s project, which, in turn, would have devastating water quality and other environmental impacts: increased demand and pumping would drain Washeshu Creek and de-water the famous meadows in Olympic Valley. New development would increase the pollution that is robbing Lake Tahoe of its clarity. Diversions from the Truckee River would result in reduced in-stream flows in the river itself. None of which could be considered beneficial.

In September, the OVPSD withdrew its application. This is good news for the Truckee River and its watershed. 

But this episode proves a bigger, challenging point: in Olympic Valley, there is simply not enough water for Alterra’s massive development. Responsible planning requires an honest, up-to-date assessment of future water supplies. And Sierra Watch is committed to making sure our limited water resources are not wasted on a waterpark. 

Thanks for being part of that shared commitment. We’ll keep you posted!

Pictured: Olympic Valley under smoky skies September 7 2022

SF Chronicle: Famed Tahoe skiing psychiatrist and author Robb Gaffney dies at 52

Famed Tahoe skiing psychiatrist and author Robb Gaffney dies at 52

Last week we gathered in the heart of Olympic Valley to celebrate the life of Robb Gaffney.

Whether on the mountain or in a meeting of the Sierra Watch Board of Directors, as a doctor, and as a dad, Robb was a real-life hero of the Tahoe Sierra.

The loss is staggering. But we are confident that Robb will continue to inspire us – to keep us TRUE.

Pictured: Robb Gaffney at Snow Fest 2023.To ski the chutes at Palisades Tahoe requires a hike to the peak from the Siberia chairlift — and once there, Robb Gaffney further separated his style from the other steep-terrain skiers.

He picked a route down through rock walls on strips of snow that were not wide enough for a turn until he hit a speed of 50 mph at the bottom of a chute or chimney.

This was back in the 1990s, and there were lines in the Palisades terrain section that had never been skied the way Gaffney did it. 

In his spare time, while a resident in psychiatry at the UC Davis School of Medicine, he wrote, mapped, published and distributed “Squallywood: A Guide to Squaw Valley’s Most Exposed Lines” in 2003. The book title references Palisades’ previous name, Squaw Valley, which the resort changed in 2021, acknowledging Native American tribes’ longstanding objections that it was derogatory.

“Squallywood” became an instant ski cabin coffee table classic and sold out its first edition even as Dr. Gaffney settled into a Tahoe psychiatry practice near the ski hill — sometimes treating patients as they sat side by side on the chairlift.   

Over time he stopped riding lifts, preferring to hike up into the wilder backcountry terrain and ski down. It was hard work for a short reward, but Gaffney stayed at it until last winter, when a four-year struggle with acute myeloid leukemia overtook him. 

Hospitalized last month, he made the decision to go into hospice care so that he could lie in bed at home in Tahoe City and look out the window across the west shore of Lake Tahoe, Rubicon Peak and the Desolation Wilderness, where he spent most of the last 30 years skiing and hiking.

Gaffney died Sept. 22, said his brother Scott, a ski filmmaker who often featured his brother. He was 52.      

“In Robb’s days at Squaw Valley, he was skiing exceptionally rowdy terrain with a smooth style that came naturally to him, ” Scott said. “He jumped off cliffs and did all that exciting stuff, and as he got older he found more peace and fulfillment out in the backcountry.”

When Gaffney first moved to what is now called Olympic Valley in the 1990s, advances in downhill ski equipment combined with a cultural shift away from the marked slopes put skiers in areas where they hadn’t been before. 

“Robb was a pioneer in what was then a new chapter of extreme skiing. He skied the type of lines that people did not think was possible on two skis,” said Megan Michelson, a lifelong Tahoe skier and freelance journalist. 

Michelson wrote about Gaffney’s skiing career, including the loss of skiing buddies like Shane McConkey, who died while base jumping in Italy in 2009. These experiences, on top of a severely dislocated knee that required a complete year in rehab, and his medical training gave him a unique perspective in helping other skiers with the psychological challenges of the sport.  

He helped Michelson through the trauma of being at the top of a run in Washington state when an avalanche swept down and killed three skiers in front of her. It took her a season to regain her nerve, and when she went into the backcountry outside Alpine Meadows, it was with Gaffney. 

“I had a lot of fear and anxiety, and I panicked when we hit steep terrain,” Michelson said. “We stopped there and assessed the risks and ended up turning around. But it gave me the trust in myself that I could return to that style of skiing.”

“I could not have asked for a better person to be with in that moment than Robb,” she said. “He was understanding and nonjudgmental and led me to the right decision.”

But one thing Gaffney was judgmental about was the announced development plans for Olympic Valley after a corporate takeover in 2010-11. Gaffney spoke eloquently and analytically at county hearings and walked picket lines during protests

He became involved in the advocacy group Keep Squaw True (renamed Tahoe Truckee True) and with his brother made a one-hour documentary film, “To Keep Squaw True,” which made the festival circuit. He later joined the board of the nonprofit Sierra Watch.

“Robb Gaffney is one of the most influential skiers and advocates for the environment that Lake Tahoe has ever seen,” said Mike Rogge, editor and publisher of the Mountain Gazette magazine. “Future generations who grow up in the area are going to be glad they had Robb to advocate for skiing and saving what we have in North Lake Tahoe and the Sierra.” 

Robb Gaffney skiing the Bear Scratch chute on Lake Tahoe’s east shore in 2015. Courtesy of Matt Bansak

Robert Brian Gaffney was born Sept. 26, 1970, in Tupper Lake, N.Y. His father, Dr. Jim Gaffney, was the town doctor, and his mother, Bunny, taught physical education at the junior high level. Both of his parents were canoe racers, and the family spent summers at a lakeside cabin and winters on Ski Big Tupper, a mountain served by three chairlifts and a T-bar.

When Gaffney was 14, his family took a cross-country camping trip, during which he saw Olympic Valley for the first time. They took the tram up, and Gaffney then ran from the station to the patches of snow lingering on the Palisades and skied down in his tennis shoes. 

Known in his youth as Robbie, he ran cross-country and played soccer and golf at Hugh C. Williams Senior High School. When he graduated in 1989, he decided he had outgrown his nickname, and by the time he arrived at the University of Colorado in Boulder he was going by Robb. During summers he worked as an instructor in whitewater kayaking on the Ottawa River in Canada. 

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Colorado in 1993, he took two years off before returning to medical school. That was when he found Tahoe for the second time. He and Scott moved their ski film venture to Tahoe City.

However, that project did not pay, so he got a part-time job at the ski resort, setting up gates and fencing for ski races and a less-glamorous side job bagging groceries at the Safeway in Truckee. One register over was Andrea Gemperle, a recent graduate from UC Santa Cruz taking a year in the mountains.

When Gaffney returned to Denver for medical school, Gemperle went with him, and they were married in 1997 on the west shore of Lake Tahoe. 

The publication of “Squallywood” in 2003 helped Gaffney more in establishing his psychiatry practice than did his long years of medical training. A local psychiatrist read the author’s bio, contacted Gaffney and ended up turning over his practice to him. 

Gaffney set up an office across the street from the Olympic Valley Post Office. On days that were too nice for school, he would drive right by his office to take his son, Noah, and daughter, Kate, skiing. They were always on the mountain by 8:30 a.m., when the lifts opened. 

Last January, the Gaffney brothers took a backcountry ski day above Sand Harbor on the East Shore. They hiked 2,500 feet up and skied down straight toward the lake. But Robb was feeling pain that turned out to be tumors on his spine and his pelvis, so they cut their day short.

That was the last run of his life.

Release: Sierra Watch Report on Palisades Tahoe Public Comments: 99% Oppose Alterra Proposal

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Contact: Tom Mooers (530) 265-2849 x200 

May 4, 2023

PUBLIC COMMENTS ON TAHOE DEVELOPMENT PROJECT REVEAL OVERWHELMING OPPOSITION

Olympic Valley, Calif. –According to a new report released today, thousands of comment letters reveal overwhelming opposition to proposed development in Tahoe’s Olympic Valley. 

Pictured: Olympic Valley in Winter

Pictured: Olympic Valley in Winter

The letters were written by community groups, regulatory agencies, and – most of all – ordinary citizens. Nearly all – more than 99% – express opposition to Alterra Mountain Company’s latest attempt to secure new entitlements for its stalled Palisades Tahoe project.

“Each and every letter demonstrates a personal commitment to defend our mountain values from Alterra’s reckless development proposal,” said Tom Mooers of Sierra Watch, the conservation group that released the report. “Taken together they prove an undeniable consensus: Tahoe deserves better.”

The letters – more than 2,600 – were submitted to Placer County in response to its Revised Draft Environmental Impact Report (RDEIR) for Alterra’s proposed development at Palisades Tahoe. 

Alterra’s project, first proposed back in 2011, would remake the Tahoe Sierra with development of a size, scale, and scope the region has never seen. 

New development would include: a series of high-rise condo hotels, many eight stories tall, containing 1,493 new rooms – as many bedrooms as three of South Lake Tahoe’s Stateline casinos combined; nearly 300,000 square feet of commercial uses – enough to build a mall covering more than five football fields; and a 90,000-square-foot indoor waterpark with artificial rivers, indoor water-skiing, video arcades, and North America’s tallest indoor waterslide.

Olympic Valley would be a construction zone for 25 years. At build-out, the project would add 3,300 new daily car trips to Tahoe traffic. And it would draw 78,263,299 gallons of water annually from the local watershed.

The struggle over Alterra’s proposal and the future of Tahoe has become the biggest development fight in the Sierra this century. Sierra Watch has engaged experts and built a grassroots movement to keep Tahoe Truckee True

So far, it’s working. After more than ten years of committed conservation advocacy, Sierra Watch secured a court order to rescind previous approvals of the project. 

“Thousands of Tahoe residents and visitors are standing with us to defend our mountains,” says Mooers. “Proving that we can indeed work together to protect the places we love.”  

Pictured: Allison Silverstein of Sierra Watch Recruiting Volunteers on Earth Day

Pictured: Allison Silverstein of Sierra Watch Recruiting Volunteers on Earth Day

Late last year, Alterra responded by seeking a new round of approvals for its same old plan. But, according to the report on comment letters, opposition continues to grow.

Regulatory agencies and conservation groups sent in letters, raising important issues – and pointing out inadequacies in the Revised EIR.

  • Sierra Watch engaged experts in law, planning, traffic, water supplies, and fire danger to research and submit its own 66-page comment letter. It clearly spells out how the Revised DEIR fails “to respect Tahoe and its mountain communities” with detailed arguments ranging from the impacts on the clarity of Lake Tahoe to the irresponsibility of telling Olympic Valley residents to survive a wildfire by sheltering in place in a parking lot.
  • The Olympic Valley Public Services District is the primary local water provider and runs the local fire department. In its letter, the district raises concerns about “vulnerability of the community’s sole source of water supply.” And it points out that the Revised EIR’s evaluation of public safety in the face of growing wildfire danger is “not accurate.” 
  • CalTrans, California’s Department of Transportation, writes of its concern “for the overall increase in traffic volumes.”
  • The League to Save Lake Tahoe addresses how the project threatens the multi-generational commitment to Keep Tahoe Blue. “The League opposed the same project when it was proposed in 2012 as the Village at Squaw Valley Specific Plan, and continued to oppose it as it was approved by Placer County in 2016. We continue to oppose the Project in this, its most recent iteration. Consistent with our 2012 concerns, still unaddressed, the League’s opposition is due to the significant, unanalyzed, and unmitigated impacts to Lake Tahoe’s environment.” 

But the big story of the comment letters is the deep and broad engagement of individual citizens. Of the 2,629 letters submitted by ordinary people on the Palisades Tahoe proposal, only eight express support of the project; 2,621 are against it. 

Pictured: 2,686 comment letters

Pictured: 2,686 comment letters

Some comment letters express frustration with Alterra’s ongoing unwillingness to compromise on its old proposal or seek a collaborative effort to planning. Many letters point to one particular issue facing Tahoe – traffic, wildfire, workforce housing – and how the proposed development would make it worse. All tap a shared sense of place and commitment to making sure Tahoe’s spirit of the great outdoors isn’t lost to Vegas-style excess – and an indoor waterpark.

Not surprisingly, most of the letters point to the issue of traffic – and question the wisdom of adding 3,300 new daily car trips to a region already strangled by gridlock.

  • “We literally cannot drive our kids to sports practices, make it to the grocery store, or conduct the basic chores of daily life without sitting in hours of standstill traffic simply trying to make it across town.”
  • “When my daughter needed urgent care we could not get through to Tahoe City because traffic from Olympic Valley was backed up to Carnelian Bay!”
  • “I understand we choose to live here and we make sacrifices to do so, but what is the limit. It took 3 plus hours at times last weekend to get from Truckee to Olympic Valley. Imagine if that were your loved one needing emergency care. Or it was a fire and you and/or your beloved family couldn’t get out.”
  • “These development plans are absolutely absurd. The traffic in town is NOT sustainable and we all know that. As someone that went into labor last week and sat in Palisades Tahoe traffic on Donner Pass road to get to the hospital was absolutely INFURIATING.”

In the event of wildfire, that traffic could prove deadly. The Revised DEIR concedes that it would take evacuees more than 11 hours to escape three miles from Palisades Tahoe to Highway 89. Those stuck in the valley would be told to “shelter in place” in a parking lot or on a golf course.

  • “As I am sure you all know, California is increasingly prone to wildfires. With the amount of people that could potentially be in the valley, if a fire were to start (and that is not unlikely), the fire would scream down the valley, and the estimated evacuation time has been placed at ten hours. That is unacceptable. People will die.”
  • “If there is a fire in the basin, and you allow this project, you put me and my family in harm’s way.”
  • “I am 14 years old. Evacuating Palisades Tahoe have always been a problem, imagine adding thousands more people into the mix. It would take over 11 hours to evacuate the 3 miles to highway 89. Alterra is going to build a death trap, If we don’t stop them. Please save the place me and thousands call home.”

Commenters also express concern about Olympic Valley’s limited water supplies and how Alterra’s demand could harm natural resources and threaten the flow of their own faucets:

  • “As a hydrologist, I understand (it doesn’t take much research and general logic for anyone else to understand) that we do not have the water availability to support the amount of rooms this development proposes, nonetheless a waterpark!”
  • “I find it concerning and irresponsible to want to add a water park to the project based on the drought records. I am worried the town’s water supply could be severely compromised long term.”

Most important and most impressive is what lies at the foundation of the letter – a shared appreciation for Tahoe and a deep commitment to its future:

  • “I am strongly opposed to Alterra’s Palisades Tahoe Project as proposed. After studying their plan, it’s clear to me that it would be the worst possible development to ever happen here. It would destroy nearly everything that makes Olympic Valley the unique natural mountain community that it is.”
  • “As a society, we can either choose to be thoughtful with our remaining natural areas, which we all love, or we can create another Disneyland‐esque attraction on the paved‐over memory of this treasured valley.”
  • “The fresh air and untainted wilderness have been a part of my life as long as I can remember. However, all of these things that I cherish are at risk – from fires, pollution, water shortage, and traffic.”
  • “I am only 19 and I don’t know much, but if I know something, it’s that I am going to protect my home, always and forever.”

The comment letters are now in the hands of Placer County and Alterra Mountain Company; they’ll decide how to respond.

“Our hope is that the County and Alterra will take these letters – and the people who wrote them – seriously,” says Mooers. “Tahoe deserves no less.”

To read the full report, visit: sierrawatch.org

About Sierra Watch

Sierra Watch works to protect great places in the Sierra Nevada.  Founded in 2001, the Nevada City based non-profit has built a remarkable track record in land preservation in Tahoe’s Martis Valley, on Donner Summit, and for other treasured Sierra landscapes.  For more information, visit www.sierrawatch.org.

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Release: Failed Olympic Valley Development Back to Threaten Tahoe Again

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Contact: Tom Mooers (530) 265-2849 x200 

December 1, 2022

FAILED OLYMPIC VALLEY DEVELOPMENT BACK TO THREATEN TAHOE AGAIN

Olympic Valley, Calif. – Placer County released a revised environmental assessment for massive development at Palisades Tahoe, formerly Squaw Valley, yesterday.

The announcement makes official what had been looming over Tahoe for months: resort owners Alterra Mountain Company seek a new round of entitlements for the same plan they first proposed more than ten years ago—with the same destructive impacts to Tahoe, according to planning documents.

Pictured: Olympic Valley and Palisades Tahoe

Pictured: Olympic Valley and Palisades Tahoe

Alterra’s plan to remake the mountain playground with a series of highrise condos, a roller coaster, and an indoor waterpark have made Olympic Valley, formerly Squaw Valley, the biggest conservation battleground in the Sierra this century.

Thousands of volunteers have been involved in an effort to stop the development and Keep Tahoe True.  Regional conservation group Sierra Watch secured a court order to wipe out previous approvals, made in 2016.  But Alterra continues to push its speculative scheme to transform Tahoe with Vegas-style attractions.

“Alterra’s relentless effort to force its reckless development on the Sierra is an insult to anyone who lives, skis, or plays in Tahoe,” says Tom Mooers, Executive Director of Sierra Watch.  “Our community and our mountains deserve better.”

At a Town Hall meeting in Olympic Valley in May, Dee Byrne, Alterra’s President of Palisades Tahoe, had claimed there is “not enough to do” in Tahoe and said Alterra would apply for a new set of entitlements.

Under state planning law known as CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, Placer County is required to assess what the development would mean to the region and its traffic, fire safety, water supplies, and visual resources.

Details about Alterra’s proposal, and a draft review of its impacts on Tahoe, are available at: Village at Palisades Tahoe Specific Plan

Development would include a series of high-rise condo hotels, many eight stories tall, containing 1,493 new rooms—as many bedrooms as three of South Lake Tahoe’s Stateline casinos combined—over an area greater than six city blocks.

 Pictured: Scale Model of Proposed Development

Pictured: Scale Model of Proposed Development

The main attraction would be a 90,000-square-foot indoor waterpark with artificial rivers, indoor water-skiing, video arcades, and North America’s tallest indoor waterslide.

The project would add 274,000 square feet of commercial development—enough to build a mall covering more than five football fields—further exacerbating the region’s workforce housing crisis.

According to planning documents, the project would make Olympic Valley a construction zone for 25 years.  It would add 3,300 new daily car trips to Tahoe traffic.  And it would draw 78,263,299 gallons of water annually from the local watershed.

Placer County will accept comments on the Revised Draft Environmental Impact through January 30, 2023. 

Comments can be mailed to:

          Placer County Community Development Resource Agency

          Environmental Coordination Services

          3091 County Center Drive, Suite 190

          Auburn, CA 95603; or

          emailed to cdraecs@placer.ca.gov

In 2015, the last time the County collected comments on the plan, hundreds of citizens submitted letters—95% expressed opposition.

Conservationists, successful in stopping the development so far, remain committed.

“More than 20,000 people have joined our movement to Keep Tahoe True,” says Mooers.  “And if it takes another ten years of grassroots commitment to defend our mountain values, so be it.  Tahoe deserves no less.”

 

About Sierra Watch

Sierra Watch works to protect great places in the Sierra Nevada.  Founded in 2001, the Nevada City based non-profit has built a remarkable track record in land preservation in Tahoe’s Martis Valley, on Donner Summit, and for other treasured Sierra landscapes.  For more information, visit www.sierrawatch.org.

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Release: Placer County Rescinds All Approvals For Massive Development In Tahoe’s Olympic Valley

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Contact: Tom Mooers (530) 265-2849 x200 

November 8, 2022

PLACER COUNTY RESCINDS ALL APPROVALS FOR MASSIVE DEVELOPMENT IN TAHOE’S OLYMPIC VALLEY

Olympic Valley, Calif. – The Placer County Board of Supervisors rescinded its approval of a massive development proposed for Tahoe’s Olympic Valley at a public hearing today.

The vote was unanimous, and the action was compulsory. Conservation non-profit Sierra Watch had secured a court order commanding the County to “vacate and set aside its approval” of Alterra Mountain Company’s proposal to remake Tahoe with development on a scale the region has never seen.

“Today’s action is a milestone event in Tahoe conservation,” said Tom Mooers, Executive Director of Sierra Watch. “Like generations before, we are showing how we can work together to defend our mountain values.”

Tahoe’s Olympic Valley

Pictured: Tahoe’s Olympic Valley

Would-be developers Alterra Mountain Company, then acting as KSL Capital Partners, purchased the Tahoe ski resort formerly known as Squaw Valley in 2010.  Within a year, they applied to Placer County for development entitlements for a series of high-rise condo hotels, a rollercoaster, and a 90,000 square-foot indoor waterpark – as wide as a Walmart and nearly three times as tall.

2013 Scale Model of Proposed Development in Tahoe’s Olympic Valley

Pictured: 2013 Scale Model of Proposed Development in Tahoe’s Olympic Valley

Sierra Watch responded by building a grassroots movement under a banner of Keep Squaw True. Thousands of volunteers got involved. Hundreds spoke up at public hearings.

Sierra Watch Volunteers at a 2016 Public Hearing

Pictured: Sierra Watch Volunteers at a 2016 Public Hearing

In November of 2016, in the face of overwhelming opposition, the Placer County Board of Supervisors nevertheless voted 4-1 to approve the project. Sierra Watch challenged those approvals in court, arguing that Placer County violated state planning laws.

In August of last year, the Third District Court of Appeals agreed with Sierra Watch that Placer County ignored the proposed development’s impacts on Lake Tahoe, fire danger, noise, and traffic.

“Judgment in this case is therefore entered in favor of Petitioner Sierra Watch,” the court declared in its unanimous decision. “The County shall vacate and set aside its approval of the Project, including the Specific Plan, the Development Agreement, the Large-Lot Vesting Tentative Subdivision Map, amendments to the Squaw Valley General Plan and Land Use Ordinance, zoning change, development standards, and related resolutions and ordinances… adoption of related findings of fact, statement of overriding considerations, and mitigation monitoring reporting program; and certification of the EIR.”

Earlier this year, however, would-be developers Alterra Mountain Company announced they were committed to reviving their failed proposal and trying again for a new round of approvals.

At a Town Hall meeting in Olympic Valley in May, Dee Byrne, Alterra’s President of Palisades Tahoe, claimed there is “not enough to do” in Tahoe and said Alterra would apply for a new set of entitlements “sometime next year.”

Alterra’s attempt at new entitlements for an old project, however, faces a steep climb.

At today’s hearing, County Planner Patrick Dobbs affirmed Alterra’s commitment, stating, “The applicant wants to move forward with the project;” as did Alterra’s representative, attorney Whit Manley, “My client remains committed to this project.”

Developer Alterra’s attorney Whit Manley address the Board of Supervisors

Pictured: Developer Alterra’s attorney Whit Manley address the Board of Supervisors

Tahoe’s problems – loss of lake clarity, too much traffic, not enough workforce housing, increasing fire danger, limited water supplies – have gotten worse. And each would be further exacerbated by Alterra’s proposed development.

Sierra Watch advocated a different path forward.

“Now that the approvals are gone we’ve got a clean slate and an opportunity to bring people together – the property owner, local residents, County planners, regional stakeholders – to work on a collaborative plan for Olympic Valley,” said Mooers. “Tahoe deserves no less.”

 

About Sierra Watch

Sierra Watch works to protect great places in the Sierra Nevada.  Founded in 2001, the Nevada City based non-profit has built a remarkable track record in land preservation in Tahoe’s Martis Valley, on Donner Summit, and for other treasured Sierra landscapes.  For more information, visit www.sierrawatch.org.

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Pictured: Olympic Valley under smoky skies September 7 2022

Meet the New Waterpark. Same as the Old Waterpark?

At two meetings under smoky skies in Tahoe’s Olympic Valley last week, Alterra Mountain Company gave a brief update on its proposed development; Placer County counsel described their legal obligations in the aftermath of Sierra Watch’s court victory; and planners laid out the steps in the upcoming public planning process.

The project and the process were portrayed as a steamroller – as if environmental review had been reduced to mere technicalities and the project is inevitable.

But it felt more like a train wreck.

Pictured: Olympic Valley under smoky skies September 7 2022

Pictured: Olympic Valley under smoky skies September 7 2022

We’ll start with the good news: officials informed us that, per court order, the Placer County Board of Supervisors will rescind all 2016 approvals of Alterra’s original project at its meeting on October 25.

This includes, as spelled out in the Final Judgment in Sierra Watch vs. Placer County et al, “the Specific Plan, the Development Agreement, the Large-Lot Vesting Tentative Subdivision Map, amendments to the Squaw Valley General Plan and Land Use Ordinance, zoning change, development standards, and related resolutions and ordinances… adoption of related findings of fact, statement of overriding considerations, and mitigation monitoring reporting program; and certification of the EIR.”

This is a major milestone in our ongoing work to keep Tahoe Truckee True. And it should provide a great opportunity for a clean slate, a chance to work together on collaborative planning for Olympic Valley and the Tahoe Truckee Region.

But County officials also informed us that they are already moving forward with a new public planning process for Alterra’s old project, this time known as the Palisades at Tahoe Specific Plan.

They showed us a slide of the proposed development: there were no changes to Alterra’s failed proposal – still 1,500 bedrooms, still 25 years of construction, still an indoor waterpark.

Pictured: Placer County planner Alex Fisch presents slide of Alterra proposal – same as the old plan.

Pictured: Placer County planner Alex Fisch presents slide of Alterra proposal – same as the old plan.

Doubling down on the old, failed plan, Clayton Cook of the County Counsel’s office informed the audience that environmental review would be based on the time at which the proposal was originally filed with the County: 2011(!). 

As if the County had a Tahoe Time Machine that could transport us all back eleven years – and that nothing has changed in the meantime.

Members of the Olympic Valley and North Tahoe Regional Advisory Councils, as well as members of the public, pointed out the simple fact that: times have indeed changed – and not necessarily for the better. 

Drought is drying up our creeks. Climate change is shrinking our snowpack. Increased occupancy is straining local infrastructure and housing stock. Wildfires crest the Sierra as smoke fills our skies.

These are not mere technicalities. They are the most important issues facing Tahoe. And, as proposed, Alterra’s old plan would make each one worse.

Sierra Watch believes there’s a better way. We took to the podium to invite Alterra and the County to join us in a more collaborative approach: Take a time out from the train wreck, and see if we – community members, planners, conservationists, and Alterra – can come up with a limited development alternative that works for everyone. 

Without engaging in another ten years of conflict and, more important, without jeopardizing everything we love about our mountains.

Olympic Valley – and Tahoe – deserve no less.

They didn’t take us up on the invitation – yet.

But Dee Byrne, President of Palisades Tahoe, offered some words of encouragement, promising that Alterra is “only interested in doing a project that adds value to the community.” She said, “We’re only interested in doing the right thing.”

It’s our job, in the months and years ahead, to hold Alterra to that commitment.

 

A Farewell to Chase – thanks for keeping us true!

This week marks the end of an era for Sierra Watch: Friday is Chase Schweitzer’s last day.

He’s stepping down as Sierra Watch Engagement Director and setting out to seek his fortune beyond the granite cliffs of Tahoe’s Olympic Valley.

When we hired Chase seven years ago, we were looking for someone to “play a leadership role in Tahoe conservation” and “mobilize grassroots power to Keep Squaw True.” 

And you know what?  He did just that.

Chase Schweitzer

Pictured: Chase on his first day out in the field, 2015

For seven years, he helped us tap our shared passion for the mountains and plug us into something much bigger than ourselves.  And it worked

Chase Schweitzer Earth Day

Pictured: Conducting outreach at Tahoe Truckee Earth Day 2018

There is no massive indoor waterpark in Olympic (formerly Squaw) Valley.  But our shared love the mountains remains.  Thanks, in no small part, to Chase.

Sierra Watch is looking for our next awesome field organizer.  In the meantime, here’s to Chase and all he’s done for us and for Tahoe – truly a man to match our mountains!

Chase Schweitzer Sierra Watch

Pictured: Cheers to keeping it true!

  

 

Sierra Watch Seeks Field Manager for Tahoe Conservation Campaigns

Sierra Watch seeks a passionate conservation advocate to recruit and mobilize public support for our work to keep Tahoe Truckee True.

Founded in 2001, Sierra Watch has built a remarkable record in Sierra conservation, spearheading the long-term effort to protect Tahoe’s Martis Valley, playing the lead role in defending Donner Summit, and turning back a reckless scheme in Olympic Valley (formerly Squaw Valley) to transform Tahoe with highrises and indoor waterpark.

The position of Sierra Watch Field Manager is a unique opportunity to engage public support in our ongoing success, to be a leader in Tahoe conservation, and to work where you play.  Key strategies include grassroots outreach and online engagement.

The ideal candidate has one-two years professional organizing or equivalent experience and has demonstrated entrepreneurial leadership in setting priorities and following through. 

The position demands excellent communications skills.  A passion for the Sierra Nevada is a must; a sense of humor is encouraged. 

Salary DOE with health benefits.  Location is North Lake Tahoe, California.

To Apply

Send a cover letter, resume, writing/media sample, and references to:

Field Manager Search

hiring@sierrawatch.org

Position is open until filled.  Please, no drop-ins.

 

For more information, visit:

 sierrawatch.org

Tahoe Truckee True Outreach

Join us for Tahoe Truckee Earth Day, Saturday April 23

Come join Sierra Watch for Tahoe Truckee Earth Day 2022!

Saturday, April 23

The Village at Palisades Tahoe / Olympic Valley

11:00 am – 5:00 pm

Earth Day marks an annual milestone in our ongoing efforts to protect this mountainous portion of our favorite planet.

Truckee Tahoe Earth Day

Pictured: Lake Tahoe as viewed from space

 

It was twenty years ago when Sierra Watch set up a booth for the first time at Tahoe Truckee Earth Day.

We were a brand new organization, eagerly setting out to Save Martis Valley.  We didn’t even have bumper stickers.  We had postcards – and asked people to sign them to “Support a healthy future for Martis Valley and the Tahoe-Truckee region.”

Those little postcards must have worked – as building blocks in a long-term effort that keeps protecting the places we love.

And we keep coming back to Tahoe Truckee Earth Day; it’s always a great way to connect with the community and build our grassroots movement for Sierra conservation.  Pretty much what Earth Day is all about.

Peter Van Zant Sierra Watch

Sierra Watch Field Director Peter Van Zant in 2014

That is except for the time in 2016 when the would be developers of Olympic Valley (what we then called Squaw Valley) kicked us out of the event.  That’s right: the developers kicked the environmentalists out of Earth Day(!).