Isaac Silverman, Sierra Watch Staff Attorney
I started working for Sierra Watch in 2014. Since then, I’ve spoken to thousands of people about the development proposed for Squaw Valley. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of people think that building acres of condo hotel highrises and a massive indoor water park in the middle of Squaw Valley and siting 21 timeshare mansions in the mouth of Shirley Canyon is a bad idea.
They know that the mountain environment that makes this place so special, not to mention our limited transportation infrastructure, simply can’t handle the impacts that would result from adding 1500 new bedrooms and thousands of daily car trips to our roads. This much is clear from the record breaking public response to the project’s draft environmental report, the Squaw Valley Municipal Advisory Council’s vote against the project, the more 70 local businesses who have asked the county to reject it, and the more than 200 people who have written letters to the Placer County Supervisors not to mention the over 3,600 people who have signed our petition to Squaw True.
Still, there are some people who, for a variety of reasons ranging from naked economic self-interest to a genuine belief in the vision of transforming Squaw Valley into an international megaresort similar to Vail or Whistler, think that KSL Capital Partners’ plan makes sense. And you know what? That’s ok. They, as the saying goes, are entitled to their own opinion.
What they aren’t entitled to are their own “facts.” At least not if they are the same set of misleading statements, irrelevant half-truths, and outright falsehoods contained in Squaw Valley’s July 27 press release entitled “The Facts About the Village at Squaw Valley Redevelopment Plan.”
There is simply too much at stake for Squaw Valley, and for the entire North Lake Tahoe Truckee community.
With that in mind here are a series of claims made in the latest press release from KSL Capital Partners’ prized Squaw Valley asset:
KSL Claim: “After five years, over 400 community meetings, four significant project reductions and one of the most comprehensive plan studies in the history of Placer County, The Village at Squaw Valley Specific Plan has seen significant change over time. The project has been reduced by 50 percent since inception, and is just 38 percent of what is allowable per the Squaw Valley General Plan and Land Use Ordinance.”
While some of these claims are technically accurate, or at least impossible to authoritatively refute, all of them are either misleading, irrelevant, or both.
First off, it has in fact been more than five years since KSL Capital Partners purchased Squaw Valley in 2010. They first floated a proposal that was even more absurd than what we see today, and then quickly pulled it once it became the subject of virtually universal condemnation and ridicule not long thereafter. That of course, is irrelevant. The important question is whether the plan that is before us now is a good one – not how it compares to their own failed proposals.
And it’s also misleading to imply that many concerns have been addressed. This is not the case, as the overwhelming opposition from local businesses, organizations, and individuals is to the plan before the commission right now, not the even less realistic proposals that have been proposed, and quickly dropped, between 2011 and 2014. As far as community meetings go, KSL likely includes meetings with Sierra Watch in their grand total. But those discussions had no impact on the proposal. To imply that our input, or that of the 399 other people who met with with KSL, was incorporated into their current plan is frankly ridiculous.
Bottom line: the basic features of the current proposal have not changed significantly since January of 2014, and it is the only proposal that has undergone any environmental review. As the public and elected officials approach next steps in the project review process, the following are the facts with regard to common questions about The Village at Squaw Valley redevelopment plan:
KSL Claim: “The Village at Squaw Valley redevelopment project will provide new on-site lodging opportunities for guests who would rather stay in Squaw Valley than drive from other lodging destinations, removing upwards of 2,000 skiers/riders from the road on peak days.”
There is no support for this contention. The environmental impact report prepared by Placer County concluded that the project would have multiple significant and unavoidable impacts on traffic in Squaw Valley, Tahoe City, Truckee, and SR 89 that connects all three. (DEIR at 2-4).
That report also determined that the project would generate an average of 3,200 daily vehicle trips and as many as 8,410 vehicle trips in Placer County on peak days. Independent analyses suggest that this is likely far too low as the County’s report is based on flawed assumptions, including, for example, that the proposed indoor water park would generate only 10 total trips during its busiest hour of operation (Table 19-8 of the DEIR).
KSL Claim: “The plan will commit $20 million in one-time and annual fees to transit initiatives, including electric in-village shuttles, alternative-fuel in-valley shuttles and enhanced regional transit initiatives, representing Olympic Valley’s largest transit investment ever.”
The County’s environmental analysis showed that these efforts would be overwhelmed by the additional traffic the project would generate, and gridlock throughout Olympic Valley would only increase. (DEIR at 2-4). An examination of the recently approved Development Agreement shows that most of this money is simply required “fair share” fees required to make sure that increased demand from the project wouldn’t make current service worse or mitigation measures required by the California Environmental Quality Act. Only $97,500 /year (roughly $3 million spread over 30 years) would help close the $3 million/year local transit vision funding gap or the $1.75 billion/year countywide budget gap for Placer County transportation and transit. (Staff Report at 67).
KSL Claim: “Congestion on peak days is a regional issue, and Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows has and will continue to serve as a leader for solutions and progress: In addition to at least $125,000 that Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows contributes annually to regional transit initiatives, the resort utilized $285,000 for traffic control within Squaw Valley during the 2015-16 season, operating a successful three-lane model on a total of 44 high traffic days. Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows has initiated discussions with local traffic management agencies on solutions for Highway 89 congestion for which the resort would assist in funding.”
Squaw Valley’s traffic control efforts have been spotty and ineffective at best. Numerous comments from local residents in the official environmental record attest to this fact. This excerpt from Charles Luckhardt’s comment, found at 3.2.5-577 of the FEIR, is illustrative of the inadequacy of Squaw Valley’s efforts in implementing this strategy:
It would be naïve at best to assume that this form of traffic management, which Squaw Valley has failed to successfully implement for Squaw Valley Road – and isn’t even part of their official proposal, would work for Hwy 89.
KSL Claim: “Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows is an active contributor to the Sustainable Transit Vision led by the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association as well as the North Lake Tahoe Express Business planning committee.”
Improvements to regional transit are absolutely necessary and, should the County’s Transit Vision actually be funded and implemented, even provide hope for some relief from North Lake Tahoe’s existing traffic problems. As of June 2016 the North Lake Tahoe Regional Transit Vision faced an annual budget deficit of $3 million. (Presentation by Placer County to TRPA on June 6, slide 30). Squaw’s proposed contribution would close 3% of that gap. Countywide, transportation and transit projects face a $1.75 billion funding gap. Squaw’s proposed contribution closes .17%.of that gap. (Staff Report at 67). Locking in development that would add thousands of cars to the roads would render these transportation fixes meaningless. Doing so before we know whether these visions are more than pipe dreams is beyond foolish.
KSL Claim: “The purpose of the Mountain Adventure Camp is to provide four-season activities, training opportunities for athletes, après ski activities for families and things for locals and resort visitors to do when weather does not allow for on-mountain activities…The plans for the Mountain Adventure Camp are in the conceptual stage, but among its possible activities are fitness training, performing arts, zip-lining, simulated sky diving, swimming, therapeutic pools and rock climbing.”
It’s a water park.
The application for entitlements asks permission to allow any or all of the allowed uses shown on Table 3.3 on page 3-13 of the Village at Squaw Valley Specific Plan. A glance at the list shows that it is dominated by water-based activities like water slides, lazy rivers, action rivers as well as other indoor amusements such as a 30 lane bowling alley, an arcade, and also the activities cited above. Maybe that’s why KSL calls it an “Indoor Waterpark” in their own internal memos. Memos like the one titled “Market Feasibility Study and Financial Analysis Report for the Proposed Indoor Water Park and Adventure Center, Squaw Valley, Far East Road, Olympic Valley, Placer County, California, prepared by Hotel and Leisure Advisors, July 23, 2013” included in the FEIR at Appendix E.
If that wasn’t enough, it has been repeatedly described by Squaw representatives as a wet amenity to “compete with the lake.” They also revealed that they were, for some time at least, in negotiations with Great Wolf Lodge to operate the water park. Great Wolf Lodge touts its business as “the largest family of indoor water parks with hotels.”
Needless to say the County isn’t fooled either, and their environmental documents determined that the “Mountain Adventure Camp” would consume nearly 33 thousand gallons of water per day. (See Table 1 of Updated Water Demand Calculations: Village at Squaw Valley Specific Plan, found in Appendix A to the Water Supply Assessment 2015 Update prepared by the Squaw Valley Public Service District). That would be a lot of water for a rock climbing wall, a training center, and some zip lines.
If any doubt could remain, Chevis Hosea, Vice President of Development for Squaw Valley Real Estate, stated at the June 2016 Squaw Valley Municipal Advisory Council meeting on the proposed project that the 96’ height of the building was in order to accommodate a “slide tower.” That slide, notably, would be among the tallest indoor waterslides in North America.
KSL Claim: The Mountain Adventure Camp is designed to be 96 feet tall at its tallest portion, comparable to a 6-story building, which spans only half of the structure.
This is misleading. Wikipedia defines a story as “around 10 feet.” Similarly, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat utilizes a 3.1 meter, or 10.17’, height assumption for each floor of a residential/hotel building. At 6 stories the floors of the 96’ tall building would have to average 16’.
KSL Claim: Of the 93 acres proposed for redevelopment, only 12 acres will be dedicated to buildings.
This is flatly inconsistent with their application to Placer County. Appendix B of the proposal identifies each lot slated for development, how large each lot is, the percentage of “open space” it must include, and the percentage of building coverage it would permit.
These figures identify nearly 50 acres that would be developed with either buildings, parking lots, walkways, or other industrial facilities (like a propane tank farm). Of that acreage , the plan calls for, at least 28 – not 12 – acres of allowable hardscape development (buildings and associated hardscapes).
It’s also misleading because claiming credit for leaving large portions of the plan area unbuilt is silly when you understand the features of that land. Much of the remaining acreage in the 93 acre plan area cited above is either Squaw Creek or an associated wetland or riparian area (lots 23-26), simply too steep to build on (lot 29), or in an avalanche hazard zone (lots 20 and 21). These are all areas where environmental and public safety laws, along with common sense, make development virtually impossible. The only potentially developable land that would actually be left more or less untouched are lots 44, 45, and 37, creating a small buffer zone between the proposed employee housing, shipping and receiving center, and convenience store on the east parcel, and the existing adjacent residential neighborhood.
For an overall schematic of lot locations, necessary to understand how the 93 acre claim is so egregiously misleading, see page B-21 of the Squaw Valley Specific Plan. For the lot sizes and coverage limitations see pages B-22 through B-48. All of the building coverage and open space figures were calculated from the information contained in these diagrams.
KSL Claim: The tallest buildings in the plan are 96 feet tall, comparable to a six story building. Buildings are designed to be varying in height and non-imposing, with step downs on building wings and in areas adjacent to existing village buildings to create a blended appearance. Most existing village buildings stand at four stories tall.
(See above for why ‘six story’ is a misleading measurement of the height of proposed buildings.)
KSL Claim: “The entitlements for the project would permit redevelopment over a 25-year period, however actual construction will require significantly less time and would be intermittent rather than ongoing.”
We didn’t make up the 25-year timeframe. It’s in the Draft EIR: “The Specific Plan would be developed over an estimated 25-year buildout period”, (Draft EIR at p.3.33); the Draft EIR also points out that construction would happen day and night. Now, it turns out that it may not be a 25 year buildout after all–based on the recently released development agreement calling for a 20 year development period with two automatic five year renewals, it could actually be 30 years of construction instead. That multi-decade timeframe is not only a reminder of how long construction would intrude on the peace and quiet of Squaw Valley and North Lake Tahoe. It’s also an indication of just how big this proposal is.
And it’s important to note that there are absolutely no requirements in the plan concerning the pace of construction over the buildout period. Although it is not certain that construction would in fact be constant every summer for 20 to 30 years, that scenario would in fact be permitted. And even a best case scenario of multiple several year bursts of construction broken up by a year or two of downtime would be incredibly disruptive to residents and guests.
KSL Claim: The Squaw Valley Public Service District’s Water Supply Assessment indicates that there is enough water in the basin directly under The Village at Squaw Valley Specific Plan property to serve both the project and the future cumulative demand within Olympic Valley.
This study is based on historical weather data that does not incorporate anticipated climate change hydrology in analysis and on a model based on unrealistic recharge and conductivity assumptions. Even if it were a perfect model, it is concerned solely with whether wells will be able to produce water, and it doesn’t attempt to address what impact pumping this groundwater would have on Squaw Creek, the associated meadow, or the Truckee River. It tries to say whether it is possible, but provides no information on whether it’s a good idea or not.
KSL Claim: Additionally, The Village at Squaw Valley Specific Plan has helped advance the most extensive and comprehensive body of science to date in evaluating water in Olympic Valley. More is understood and known today than ever before.
Unfortunately, no credible analysis was done to show what proposed groundwater pumping would mean for Squaw Creek or the associated meadow. The creator of the model used for that purpose, Derrick Williams, stated flatly at a meeting of the Squaw Valley Public Service District that it was not “designed or calibrated” for that purpose.” (SVPSD Board Meeting Minutes July 28, 2015).
KSL Claim: There will be no change in the number of parking spaces available at the resort.
This is simply not true. As anyone who has been to Squaw Valley on powder day knows, for good or ill, there are many informal parking spaces that are used by resort guests. Even Chevis Hosea, vice president for development for KSL’s Squaw properties, has stated repeatedly that approximately 5,000 cars squeeze into the existing lots. The current plan calls for 3,100 parking spaces. The rest will no longer be available, covered instead with buildings. And an already untenable situation, one that led officials to close Squaw Valley Road on a busy day this season after a lack of available parking led to gridlocked traffic blocking SR 89, would become worse.
KSL Claim: The project will create new on-site lodging, recreation opportunities, year-round local jobs and on-site affordable workforce housing while rehabilitating Squaw Creek and providing over $22 million in annual tax revenue to help fund public services including schools, road improvements, transit services and public safety.
Many of these claims are based on a financial analysis that was only made public a few days ago and we haven’t yet had time to verify them. Still, one thing is absolutely clear–the project would exacerbate, not improve, the region’s affordable workforce housing problems.
The project is expected to generate 574 full time equivalent positions. Due to the seasonal nature of resort employment, that means it will require many more than 574 people, each working part time or for part of the year, to reach that total. The county’s analysis puts this figure at 751. In contrast, the project would demolish an existing 99 bedrooms of employee housing and construct 50 units of new dorm style housing, enough for 252-300 (depending on how many couples share the planned studios and how many they can pack into each dorm room) employees. At best, it would provide a net of 201 units for 751 employees, and the reality is almost certainly far more grim. These statistics are available on page 3.2.3-6 of the Final Environmental Impact Report and 9-34 of the Draft Report.
And what about broader impacts on the North Tahoe economy? Development of this scale poses a clear threat to existing business – that’s one reason why more than 60 small business owners in North Tahoe have signed a letter urging Placer County to deny the project.
If you have questions or comments, or just want to get further involved in advocating for a more responsible development in Squaw Valley than the one currently being proposed by KSL Capital Partners, contact Isaac via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.