Sierra Watch and Partners File Appeal on Martis Valley West

Last week Sierra Watch and our co-plaintiffs submitted the Opening Brief in our ongoing challenge to the Martis Valley West development proposal. 

The brief not only spells out why Placer County’s approval of the project was illegal, it also sticks up for a set of principles that are fundamental to the future of Tahoe and the Sierra. 

— Click here to read the brief —

Pictured: North Lake Tahoe from Martis

The Martis Valley West project, proposed for a “very high fire hazard zone” along Brockway Summit, would allow construction of new roads, commercial development, and 760 houses on the northern rim of the Tahoe Basin. 

It would add 3,985 daily car trips to our existing gridlock – many of which would travel into the Tahoe Basin and add pollutants that are robbing the lake of its famous clarity.

Even though Placer County’s own Planning Commission – as well as local residents and common sense – recommended against approval, the Board of Supervisors approved the project on October 11, 2016.

We challenged those approvals immediately, and, earlier this year, the trial court issued its ruling.  We won – but on narrow grounds.  By filing an appeal, we seek to strengthen our victory.

According to the 77-page document filed by Sierra Watch, League to Save Lake Tahoe, and Mountain Area Preservation in California’s Third District Court of Appeals last week, those approvals “violated two state laws designed to protect the environment: the California Environmental Quality Act (‘CEQA’) and the Timberland Productivity Act.”

Pictured: Sierra Watch at the Placer County Superior Court

Specifically, the County failed to meet the basic standards of state law in assessing the development’s impacts on: the clarity of Lake Tahoe, climate change, and public safety in the event of a wildfire and, also, in immediately rezoning land that had been given substantial tax breaks for a long-term commitment to remain forest.

Clarity of Lake Tahoe

The California Environmental Quality Act, the brief points out, designates the Tahoe Basin as an area of “Statewide, Regional, or Areawide Significance” and calls expressly for its protection.

Even the United States Supreme Court agrees “that Lake Tahoe is ‘uniquely beautiful,’ that President Clinton was right to call it a ‘national treasure that must be protected and preserved,’ and that Mark Twain aptly described the clarity of its waters as ‘not merely transparent, but dazzlingly, brilliantly so.’”

But the Martis Valley West proposal threatens our multi-generational effort to Keep Tahoe Blue.  As the brief reminds us, “It would send nearly 1,400 car trips per day into the Tahoe Basin, creating emissions and sediment that would significantly contribute to the degradation of the Lake’s famed clarity and the Basin’s fragile air quality.”

And, in approving the project, “the County refused even to describe this important element of the regional setting, much less adequately analyze the Project’s significant impacts on the Lake and Basin.”

That failure to consider regional impacts of a specific development, according to the brief, renders approvals “fatally defective.”

Public Safety/Wildfire

This week we are getting painful reminders of the growing risk of wildfire – and the importance to plan accordingly. And state law also requires decision-makers to assess the project’s impacts on public safety in general and wildfire danger in particular.

In the case of Martis Valley West, all those subdivisions, the brief reminds us, “would be built in a ‘Very High’ fire severity zone, increasing the risk of catastrophic wildfire in the region and exposing residents, visitors, and fire-fighters to dangerous conditions.”

Yet, somehow, in approving the project, the County “summarily dismisses the Project’s emergency evacuation hazards as ‘insignificant.’”

In doing so, the County “plainly failed to comply with state law.”

Climate Change

California law codifies a state-wide commitment to consider climate impacts in development decision-making. 

The Martis Valley West project, the brief points out, “would emit roughly 30,000 metric tons of CO2 per year at buildout,” which would “vastly exceed the new significance threshold of 1,100 per year.”

Yet the County failed to assess how the Project could effectively mitigate its impacts and, because there is “no effective mitigation for this significant impact,” approvals “cannot stand.”

Timber Production Zoning

California enacted the Timberland Productivity Act in 1976 to “protect California’s forest resources and timberlands”. 

In order to safeguard vulnerable forests in “areas where second home subdivisions have been encroaching on valuable timberland,” the law confers generous property tax breaks on owners of timberland in exchange for placing their land into Timber Production Zones (TPZ), a designation which strictly confines the land’s use to timber production and related uses.

In exchange for lower taxes, the law prescribes a ten-year waiting period for any rezoning to become effective.

In the case of Martis Valley West, the County waived that waiting period and, as our brief contends, “violated the state Timberland Productivity Act (“Act”) by illegally rezoning protected forestland to accommodate the Project.”

Again, each one of the issues is reason enough to overturn Placer County’s approvals of the Martis Valley West project.  Most are issues that we will raise again in our Squaw Valley challenge.  And, together, they raise some of the most important questions facing Tahoe and the Sierra:

Should we consider the impacts one development project might have on the region’s natural resources?

Should planners and decision-makers consider the danger of catastrophic wildfire in approving subdivisions in California forests?

Can we apply state planning law to help reverse the catastrophic impacts of climate change?

And should landowners who get a tax break by committing to keeping land in forest be held accountable to that commitment?

Obviously we think the answers should be yesyesyes, and yes.  But we’ll have to be patient to see if the Court of Appeals agrees; their decision could take years.

In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to contact Sierra Watch Executive Director, Tom Mooers directly with any questions or comments.  You can reach him by phone at (530) 265-2849 ext. 200 or by email at