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Major Environmental Impacts Revealed in Squaw Village Document

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Timeline

The final EIR should be ready in October. After that, the project will go to the Squaw Valley Municipal Advisory Committee then to the Placer County Planning Commission in November or December, and 60 to 90 days thereafter will be heard by the county board of supervisors.

It’s been four years since Squaw Valley Ski Holdings first proposed its village expansion project. In that time the ski area has received criticism for the project’s original size and scope, followed by praise for cutting the size by 50 percent two years ago. In mid-May, the much-awaited draft environmental impact report for the Village at Squaw Valley Specific Plan was released, giving the public a full picture of SVSH’s plans for its property, as well as probable environmental issues.

While many stakeholders are still trying to wade through the document’s 2,000 pages, most interested parties are concerned about the 23 significant and unavoidable environmental impacts identified by the document in six main areas. Project watchdogs are hoping for a smaller plan that reduces the environmental impacts but still retains some of its benefits, such as restoration of Squaw Creek and enhanced biking trails and facilities. Squaw Valley Ski Holdings, on the other hand, maintains its project will improve the village’s 94-acre area.

The dEIR, which is required by the California Environmental Quality Act, is intended to inform decision makers and the public about the environmental impacts of the project. The Squaw Valley specific plan is a land use ordinance seeking entitlements for concepts, not specific buildings, and thus does not include designs or contents of structures. For instance, the 90,000 square foot Mountain Adventure Center is simply a placeholder and could contain any number of activities, from water slides to a bowling alley to indoor rock climbing.

The overarching goal of the Village at Squaw Valley Specific Plan is to develop a year-round destination “with sufficient size and services to be on par with peer world class North American ski destinations and that is economically sustainable,” according to the dEIR. As such, the 100-acre project includes two areas that will be constructed in four to five phases over 25 years: the Main Village Area, which includes the Village Core with 297,000 square feet of commercial space near the ski slopes and existing village, and the Village Neighborhoods with up to 850 units with 1,493 bedrooms in a mixture of hotel, condo hotel, fractional ownership, and timeshare units. The adventure center is also in this area. The second plan area is the East Parcel, located at the entrance to Squaw Valley Road, which includes up to 50 employee housing units, 20,000 square feet of commercial space, a 5,000 square foot market, and a 15,000 square foot shipping and receiving facility.

Serious Impacts

The dEIR identifies 23 significant and unavoidable impacts in six areas: cultural resources, visual resources, transportation and circulation, noise, greenhouse gases and climate change, and cumulative impacts.

In terms of cultural resources, the project would tear down the last two remaining buildings from the 1960 Winter Olympics: the Olympic Valley Lodge (Athlete’s Center) and Far East Center (Nevada Spectators’ Center), which are both eligible for the National and California registers of historic places.

“The history of Squaw Valley is important,” said Tom Mooers, Sierra Watch executive director. “This would destroy the values of Squaw Valley and remake it.”

For visual resources, the dEIR predicts that the project, which calls for buildings up to 108-feet tall (the current Intrawest buildings are 72-feet high), will adversely affect scenic vistas for long-term residents, substantially degrade the existing visual character of the site, substantially damage scenic resources, and create a new source of light pollution.

The dEIR also finds that the Squaw Valley project will increase traffic during peak hours to unacceptable levels at intersections along Squaw Valley Road and at the eastbound Highway 89 intersection with Alpine Meadows in the afternoon. Out of six levels of service rated A through F, these areas receive an F, which means “traffic flow exceeds 1,700 passenger cars per hour (pcph) in one direction or 3,200 pcph in two directions” and that cars would be unable to reach even 40 miles per hour.

“Operations with delays unacceptable to most drivers occur due to over-saturation, poor progression, or very long cycle lengths,” according to the report.

The dEIR also states that the project will generate more congestion and delays along Highway 89 and Deerfield Drive, West River Street, and Highway 28 in Tahoe City. But Placer County Senior Planner Alex Fisch said this excess traffic would only happen occasionally.

“This will occur very infrequently during peak ski days,” Fisch said. “The vast majority of the year traffic will continue to operate efficiently.”

According to the dEIR, noise will also increase to significant levels during construction, some of which will take place at night, although Fisch said it would not be 25 years of straight construction since the project will be built in phases. Greenhouse gases are forecasted to increase to 45,403 tons of CO2/year at full build-out, the majority caused by vehicle trips, electricity, and propane, which is an almost four-fold increase from current levels.

Nothing is Certain but Change

While critics of the project understand that Squaw Valley is going to be developed in some way, environmental and citizen groups say the project is massive and will forever change the character of Squaw Valley.

“It’s a size, scale, and scope that we have never seen in North Lake Tahoe before,” said Mooers. “It’s so transformative, so different from everything else we’ve seen — it’s a very tall, urban experience with acres and acres of 10-story buildings. I have never seen a project that asked for 25 years of build out.”

SVSH says there are no 10-story buildings in the project, and that the tallest building, at 108-feet, equals seven stories.

Steve Kastan, field director for Placer County Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery, agrees that the project will alter Squaw Valley, but says that has been the community’s plan since the early 1980s.

“This one’s big. I haven’t dealt with anything this big since Northstar,” he said. “It’s going to change Squaw Valley, but that’s what was envisioned [by the 1983 Squaw Valley General Plan].”

With a project this large, officials with Placer County said it’s not surprising to have this many immitigable environmental impacts.

“It’s not unusual for a project of this size to have significant and unavoidable impacts, but it doesn’t mean it’s a bad project,” Fisch said. “Ultimately, Placer County has to determine if there are other benefits that outweigh those impacts.”

However, Sierra Watch disagrees.

“There are a lot of significant and unavoidable impacts,” Sierra Watch lawyer Isaac Silverman said at a Friends of Squaw Valley meeting on the dEIR in May. “This is a size and scale you can’t mitigate with a straight face. I think it will be really hard for Placer County to say, ‘Yes, this a good idea.’ It doesn’t look like a good idea from the dEIR.”

Where is the Sweet Spot?

Many stakeholders of the project point out that one of the six alternatives, the Reduced Density Alternative, which cuts the project in half, would resolve many of the significant and unavoidable impacts. However, this alternative does not include restoration of Squaw Creek.

“The smaller the project, the less impacts,” said Ed Heneveld, chairman of the Friends of Squaw Valley and Friends of Squaw Creek. “The Reduced Density Alternative would make some sense … but then the creek restoration goes away. I am really torn on that.”

Friends of Squaw Valley is still formulating its own alternative, but the group said it will most likely resemble the Reduced Density Alternative.

“Friends of Squaw Valley is not against development, but we are advocating for responsible development,” said David Stepner, Friends of Squaw Valley secretary. “The project will change the character of Squaw Valley regardless of what they build, but it shouldn’t affect the quality of life for the people who live here, and for the 30,000 to 40,000 passholders it doesn’t mean they have to sit in traffic.”

Placer County Supervisor Montgomery, however, is doubtful that the Reduced Density Alternative will fly with the developer and hopes to find a compromise that works for everyone.

“My guess is that the 50 percent alternative doesn’t pencil [for SVSH], so what’s between 50 percent and what [Squaw is] proposing that addresses a lot of the issues raised by the dEIR?” she said. “There is a sweet spot in there somewhere ... When we get to the 50 percent alternative we don’t get Squaw Creek restoration. There are trade-offs that come with a reduced project. It is a balancing act.”

Andy Wirth, Squaw Valley Ski Holdings CEO, said the ski area is open to positive discussions about the project.

“It would be disingenuous to enter into a public comment period and hear good, constructive criticism and useful input … and [not] work with it,” he said. “We have never turned a deaf ear to good comments. We are looking for constructive input.”

Wirth believes the project, of which less than 5 acres will be constructed on undisturbed land, will be an improvement to the ski area and the valley.

“Right now when I stand in the parking lot and look around, I’m not sure I can get my mind around how making a parking lot something better can create damage to a society,” he said.

The public has until July 17 to comment on the dEIR, and a public hearing on the dEIR will be held June 25 at the North Tahoe Event Center in Kings Beach at 10:05 a.m.

“Now is the time for people to weigh in, even if you just sat down and wrote how it made you feel,” Mooers said. “It’s important that decision makers hear from people who care about Squaw Valley.”

The dEIR can be viewed at the Tahoe City and Truckee libraries, the Squaw Valley Public Service District, the Placer County office in Tahoe City, and online at placer.ca.gov. Public comments are due by July 17; send to cdraecs@placer.ca.gov or Placer County Community Development Resource Agency, 3091 County Center Dr., Suite 190, Auburn, CA 95603.

The Friends of Squaw Valley is hosting a community workshop on the dEIR on July 5, from 4 to 6 p.m., at the Squaw Valley Public Service District.

 
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Reader comments so far...

Hankskool | Tahoe City
Attention Lake Tahoe Residents! We interupt this decade long, decades-to-come road contracting and greenwashing orgy with a special announcement-- if you go outside you're going to choke. Even as an army of thousands of people belonging to Caltrans, road contracting and greenwashing contractors , flush with millions in tax payer cash, tear the entire basin up from one end of the lake to another, so much of it in the name of 'greening' of the lake, and infrastructure 'investments' , oh, and economic investment, the annual, totally predictable health and environmental disaster known as our forest fire season gets off to it's raging start. Despite the predictability of this annual public health and environmental disaster, exponentially greater sums of tax payer cash and prioritization continues to be shunted not into fire fighting but instead into the completely contractor -driven construction and greenwashing mess dumped onto us yearly ... along with thousands of tons of cancer causing chemical fire retardant and air saturated with fire smoke and soot, all with it's toxic effect on our ecosystem and habitat, including that big thing we call the Lake. Meanwhile, our locally operating , though not necessarily locally based, 'environmental' groups, most operating safely from inside the air conditioned and filtered cabs of their Range Rovers, weirdly obsess over it's obstruction of such apocolyptic environmental blights such as roller coasters, ski area gondolas, and housing. Someone wake all of us up and tell us that this just some really bad, really weird dream.

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December 14, 2017