Squaw Approvals Broke State Law. Twice.

Remember when Placer County made its blanket approvals of KSL’s proposed development in Squaw Valley back in 2016?

Those approvals violated not only California’s planning law but, also, California’s good government law. As you can read in a brief Sierra Watch submitted in court today:

          Click here: Sierra Watch Opening Brief for Squaw Valley Brown Act Violation

It shows how Placer County violated California’s Brown Act when it included a last-minute deal with developers in its approvals, which was negotiated in secret and finalized the day before.

Maybe you were at the public hearing when the County made their surprise announcement about the deal – and the audience booed.

That announcement – and that deal – was both a blatant betrayal of Lake Tahoe and a flagrant violation of state law.

           Pictured: Blue waters of Lake Tahoe          

Here’s why: the Brown Act, passed in 1953, is a bold declaration of the importance of public involvement in government decision-making.

The law states: “The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them,” and “it is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.”

Specifically, the law requires a governing body (like the Placer County Board of Supervisors) to “post an agenda containing a brief general description of each item of business to be transacted or discussed at the meeting” and, also, that key documents relevant to important decisions be made “available for public inspection”.

In the case of its Squaw Valley development and its impact on Lake Tahoe, the County did neither.

Let’s remember what’s at stake: the biggest development proposal in the Sierra Nevada.

KSL Capital Partners, a private equity firm based in Colorado, wants to develop Squaw Valley with a project of size, scale, and scope North Tahoe has never seen.

New development would remake the region with 1,493 new bedrooms in a series of highrise condo hotels, many of which would be nearly 100 feet tall, and include a 90,000 square foot indoor waterpark – as wide as a Walmart and more than twice as tall. 

Throughout a five-year planning process, Sierra Watch, the League to Save Lake Tahoe, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, and even the California Attorney General raised concerns about how the project would pump traffic – more than 1,300 new daily car trips – into the Basin, adding to Tahoe’s gridlock and threatening the ongoing effort to Keep Tahoe Blue.

Placer County’s answer was to negotiate a deal with the developers – in secret – and then to spring the result in a surprise announcement on the day of their approvals. 

“This really did literally come together yesterday,” explained KSL attorney Whit Manley at the 2016 hearing.

Pictured: Keep Squaw True supporters at 2016 Hearing

It’s not clear that the deal would actually have any impact on limiting the project’s impacts on the lake.  But we were never given an opportunity to assess and comment on the surprise arrangement, which commits the developer to estimated payments of less than $15,000 per year over 30 years. 

To put that number into context, Congress approved more than $400 million to protect Tahoe’s clarity less than a month later.

The deal, however, had not been put on the agenda for the Board of Supervisors meeting.

Nor was it made “available for public inspection” – another requirement of the Brown Act.

The County argues that it did make the last-minute documents available to the public.  But they were put in a file the night before the hearing – in a locked office building. 

So, arguably, they were “available” to anyone willing to commit a felony – breaking and entering.

Or, in terms of the law, as our brief points out, “Providing a memorandum at an office that is closed to the public in no way satisfies either the plain language or the purposes of the Brown Act.”

Of course our Brown Act litigation is not the only challenge to Squaw Valley development. We also filed suit to overturn Placer County’s approvals based on violations of the California Environmental Quality Act, known as ‘CEQA’. That law requires Placer County to adequately assess what development would mean to important issues such as transportation and safety. 

In our brief submitted in the CEQA case last month, we spelled out how Placer County violated state planning law by downplaying or avoiding the project’s impacts on Tahoe’s famed water quality, increased danger of wildfires, scarcity of local water supplies, and traffic.

In both cases, our goal isn’t just to win a lawsuit. Our goal is to ensure a process and results that respect the people and the values of our mountains.

The trial for the Brown Act challenge is set for March 6, and we’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, here’s to snow – and justice!


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