The Squaw Valley Community Is Not Willing To Accept “Significant & Unavoidable Impacts” Of The Village Project

Placer County Planner Alex Fisch starts his overview of the Draft Environmental Impact Report for the Village At Squaw Valley Project.
Placer County Planner Alex Fisch starts his overview of the Draft Environmental Impact Report for the Village At Squaw Valley Project.

It was a lonely day for Chevis Hosea, VP of Development for Squaw Valley. About 125 people showed up at the Placer County Planning Commission held in Kings Beach Thursday. Not one of them spoke in support of the proposed expansion of the Village at Squaw Valley. When the meeting was over, it seemed clear that the Squaw Valley community is not willing to accept the many “significant and unavoidable impacts” of the project identified in the Draft Environmental Impact Report, released by Placer County on May 15.

“This room is full at 10:00 am on a work day because people care about Squaw Valley and North Lake Tahoe, and they don’t agree with the future mapped out by KSL’s proposal.” Isaac Silverman, Sierra Watch

The Village at Squaw Valley Project portion of the meeting began with an overview of the dEIR by Placer County Planner Alex Fisch. Each of the 23 impacts that were designated as having “significant and unavoidable” impacts in the dEIR were the focus of the planner’s 45 minute presentation. In many cases, it seemed as if some of the key details were left out.

As an example, during Fisch’s discussion of visual resources and building heights, he never actually mentioned the maximum building height of 108 feet, nor did he show any illustrations of how those heights would actually affect the views. He also failed to talk about the issue of shadowing and how that would affect the village experience. He did suggest that these visual impacts were only noticeable to locals and that visitors would likely not notice the impact. Given that KSL is planning on filling beds with visitors from New York arriving on Jet Blue flights, there could be some truth to that – as long as they arrive after sunset.

Much of his presentation focused on the mitigations that might help offset some of the impacts. While many of the mitigations offered made sense, many seemed like a bandaid on a gaping flesh wound. I don’t think anybody was impressed by his statements that modern engine shrouds and mufflers would minimize the noise of heavy construction equipment. Regarding the increased traffic at Highway 89 and Squaw Valley Road, he suggested that one mitigation would be to simply increase the timing on the signal to improve flow into and out of the valley. While that might be fine if you’re going to Squaw Valley – it’s a major problem for those wanting to get to Alpine Meadows, Tahoe City or Truckee. Similarly, his suggestions that cataloguing, photographing and building an interpretive display to replace the historical Olympic buildings in the valley was off the mark – like that time your parents bought you a stuffed animal when you really, really wanted a puppy.

It was evident that Fisch may not spend much time in Tahoe, or that he drives no further than Squaw Valley when he does. When talking about mitigation of traffic at Highway 89 and Alpine Meadows Road, he mentioned that planning was in the process for installing a signal and widening the bridge to better handle increased traffic. Apparently he has not driven that way in the last 2 months to note that construction actually began on that project in May.

Chevis Hosea from Squaw Valley spoke next, as the applicant for the project. He was the only person to speak in favor of the project during the meeting. As always, Hosea focused on the argument that Squaw Valley had already reduced the project by 50%. We have said it before – it is an argument that holds no water. It is a common real estate developer tactic to ask for much more than you want initially, so you can later play that “we listened and we reduced” card. Hosea also threw out a hurried set of numbers and calculations that ultimately suggested that Squaw Valley Real Estate could develop 1500 housing units and actually reduce the number of developed acres in the valley by 9 acres. We’re betting that Hosea may have been pretty good at selling Yugos too.

For the next hour, the floor was opened to public commentary. Planning Commission Chair Ken Denio reminded people that commentary must be pertinent to the issues within the dEIR and not on the merits of the project itself. He also imposed a strict three minute time limit to each speaker.  During the comment period, 19 different speakers stepped to the podium, all of them speaking against the project.

While many great points were brought up by the 19 different speakers, addressing nearly all of the impacts, there were a couple of themes that kept popping up:

• The term “significant and unavoidable impacts” was an affront to many speakers. The dEIR does contain an alternative plan, which reduces the current plan by approximately another 50%. Following the alternative plan would eliminate most, but not all, of the impacts. While the alternative plan may not allow KSL Capital to meet it’s investment goals, it does protect Squaw Valley for locals and visitors alike, while allowing for reasonable growth and improvements.

• The potential for a 25 year construction period was of great concern to nearly every speaker. Both Fisch and Hosea suggested that the period may not last so long and would depend on the economy. We would suggest that it is equally likely that sometime in the next 25 years, a new owner may want to pursue even more development within the valley. One millennial speaker suggested that he would be in his mid-50’s by the time construction was complete, while a middle aged man suggested he might be dead before the construction was done.

“Tuesday Bluesday will become a heavy metal show with all the construction.” – Peter Schweitzer

• Several speakers addressed issues with the impacts from the development being underestimated by the dEIR. As an example, the traffic flow studies for “peak traffic” were conducted in February 2012. One speaker noted that regional media had heavily covered the lack of snow on Donner Summit that February and that surely that month would not be representative of true peak traffic. Similarly, as we have reported before, the water supply assessment was completed with data up through 2011, before the current 3 year drought began. Most speakers indicated that the dEIR was underestimating the impacts of the development proposal.

• The restoration of Squaw Creek is an important part of the redevelopment plan. The portion of the creek relegated to the “trapezoidal channel” next to the parking lot has resulted in a multitude of issues downstream. It’s not the kind of thing that anyone really thought about in the late 50’s during the preparation for the Olympics. The specific plan calls for a restoration of the creek only when the project is approximately half way to build out, which could be years away. Many speakers yesterday suggested that the creek restoration should be come a condition of the approval of any project.

• Another common theme was that the scope of the project is just too big for the scale of Olympic Valley, a relatively small valley. One speaker noted that the large village at Vail is in a valley that contains a four lane freeway, while the village at Aspen is built in a valley large enough to accommodate an airport that serves commercial jets. Another speaker noted that there is currently a 3 year inventory real estate in the valley – calling into question the need for 1500 new units.

That moment when you realize that you've been too busy taking notes to prepare your own comments. The author is surrounded by some of Squaw's finest citizens, there to express concerns about the dEIR.
That moment when you realize that you’ve been too busy taking notes to prepare your own comments…. The author is surrounded by some of Squaw’s finest citizens, there to express concerns about the dEIR.

There should have been a twentieth speaker Thursday. Due to my furious note taking, I decided to pass on my opportunity for public comment. I had hoped to share concerns about the impact of the project on the greater Lake Tahoe region. There will be far reaching impacts far outside of Squaw Valley. We have reported on them continuously since KSL Capital purchased Alpine Meadows. The economic impacts to the surrounding community are barely addressed within the dEIR. Businesses outside of the valley were severely affected by the development of the Intrawest village – as more people headed directly to the Valley and never left to spend tourism dollars in surrounding towns.

At the conclusion of the public commentary period, Commissioner Larry Sevison was the only Planning Commission member to make any meaningful comment on the issues brought up by the public. He hoped to see the concerns addressed when the final EIR is released, roughly in October. Sevison is the lone representative on the commission from east of the crest. Other than a cursory thank you from Chair Ken Denio, no other commissioners offered commentary on the dEIR.

It was refreshing to see the community come together Thursday to protect the future of Squaw Valley, Olympic Valley and the surrounding community of North Lake Tahoe. With the exception of a very few local businesses that stand to benefit from construction and an increased visitor population in the valley, the current proposal for the Village at Squaw Valley is not something the public seems to be supporting. We hope that the Placer County Planning Commission and Board Of Supervisors are willing to listen to the public, rather than cater to whims of an out of state equity firm.

For more on the meeting, check out the Sierra Watch Press Release.

If you missed the meeting, comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Report can still be submitted. Public comments on the project will be received through July 17, 2015. Comments may be emailed to cdraecs@placer.ca.gov or mailed directly to:

  • Maywan Krach, Community Development Technician
  • Environmental Coordination Services
  • Placer County Community Development Resource Agency
  • 3091 County Center Drive, Suite 190
  • Auburn, CA 95603
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