Sierra Watch prevailed in court last month, marking a major victory in our ongoing commitment to defend Tahoe’s Squaw Valley from reckless development.
So, now what?
Technically, the appellate court ruled that the matter be sent back to the trial court with specific instructions to grant our petition for writ of mandate and spell out how Placer County should comply with state law.
Essentially, the ball is in their court; would-be developers Alterra Mountain Company have three basic options:
1) try to appeal the court’s decision to the California Supreme Court;
2) push the same failed project through a new public planning process; or
3) come to the table and seek a collaborative resolution.
Their first option is to ask the California Supreme Court to review the appellate court’s decision. According to our legal experts, it is unlikely that the Supreme Court would agree to do so—but possible. If Alterra seeks another day in court, Sierra Watch will be there to greet them.
Alterra’s second option would be to try again—go back through another public process to seek another round of entitlements for its proposed development. But that could be a long, long road.
In its decision, the appellate court agreed with Sierra Watch on our basic challenge: Placer County’s 2016 approvals were based on inadequate environmental review. And the court spelled out where the review fell short: in assessing the project’s impacts on Lake Tahoe, fire danger and evacuation, noise, and traffic.
Alterra and Placer County could use the decision as a road map, marking what actions they would have to take to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act—with a new Environmental Impact Report, opportunities for us to comment, public hearings, and, potentially, more legal challenges.
If you imagine Alterra’s attempts to seek entitlements as an elaborate, ten-year board game, they’re not quite back to square one. But they’re likely a lot closer to the start than to the finish.
Meanwhile, times have changed and the road to development has only gotten steeper. All of the regional problems we pointed out at the County’s public hearings in 2016 have, regrettably, gotten worse.
Lake Tahoe continues to suffer a steady loss of clarity. In 2015, you could see 73.1 feet into clear waters; last year only 62.9 feet.
If you’re Alterra, do you really want to stand up in a public hearing and pretend again, like they did in 2016, that their massive development is no threat to the multi-generational effort to Keep Tahoe Blue?
The risk of catastrophic wildfire has grown. California keeps learning hard lessons about allowing too much development in places where there are not enough ways to evacuate.
If you’re Alterra, do you really want to stand under our smoky skies and tell everyone: no problem? That a projected evacuation time of more than ten hours—to travel less than three miles out of Squaw Valley and onto a gridlocked Highway 89—poses no threat to public safety? That we can just, as they argued before, “shelter in place” on a golf course? That Placer County should roll the dice on wildfire when the stakes are human lives and the jackpot goes to Alterra?
The drought is drying up our watersheds. The Sierra snowpack at the end of last winter was at 0% of normal. Do you want to put on your Alterra hat and stand in the empty streambed of Squaw Creek—bone dry right now—and say there’s enough water for a waterpark?
Alterra’s project would be bad for traffic—adding 3,000 new daily car trips to Tahoe’s traffic mess.
Alterra’s project would be bad for workforce housing—adding 500 employees, with no place to live, to the long list of working families looking for a home.
Alterra’s project would even be bad for winter—adding 40,000 metric tons of CO2, the pollutants that drive climate change, more than 30 times the regulatory threshold of significance.
Would you really want to stand up and try justifying the traffic, the fire danger, and the pollution? For what? Highrises, a waterpark, and roller coasters? If you were a member of the Placer County Board of Supervisors, how could you pretend to agree?
But there is a third option. Alterra could come to the table, end ten years of conflict, and seek a collaborative resolution. Simply sit down and work together on development that, instead of making everything worse, would respect our shared mountain values.
Whichever route Alterra chooses, Sierra Watch will be ready.
We’ll stand up in court again if we have to. We’ll mobilize our growing grassroots movement to turn out for public hearings if need be. And we’ll join a positive planning effort—in good faith, with a true spirit of collaboration.
In the meantime, we celebrate the fact that we have once again proved we can work together to protect the places we love. That Tahoe has been spared from a disaster of reckless development. That there is no indoor waterpark in Squaw Valley.
We appreciate the role we’re playing in writing one of the great chapters in the proud history of Sierra conservation.
And we move forward with confidence, understanding that our commitment is rooted in our shared love of the mountains. A love that is as timeless, almost, as the mountains themselves.