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A New Deal for Martis Valley

Is the Martis Valley West Parcel project a boon to conservation, or a bum deal for the Basin?
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The changing landscape of land use in the Tahoe area

Editors' Note: This is story one of a 2-part piece exploring techniques used in land use planning in the Tahoe region. Read story two here.

While driving up Highway 267 on the way to Tahoe, just past Northstar, one can see a sign perched along the road that announces a pending development proposal. The Martis Valley West Parcel, a project by East West Partners and Sierra Pacific Industries, proposes 760 residential units and a conservation easement, making it the last piece of the conservation puzzle in Martis Valley if approved. However, environmental groups in the Tahoe Basin caution that while conservation for Martis Valley is important, the project may not benefit the Basin as a whole.

By the Numbers

Sierra Pacific Industries owns property on either side of Highway 267 — 6,376 acres on the east side of the highway and 1,992 acres on the west side. The eastern portion includes 670 acres designated as potential future development under the Martis Valley Community Plan, which was adopted in 2003, and zoning allows for 1,360 residential units and 6.6 acres of commercial space. The Martis Valley West project proposes to shift a portion of the allowed development from the east parcel to the west parcel, where development is currently not allowed. Up to 760 residential units would be built on the west parcel, including 112 units inside the Basin boundary located between the Fiberboard Freeway and Northstar, while the remaining allowable development of 600 residential units would be retired. Most importantly to environmental groups, the entire east parcel of 6,376 acres, as well as 352 acres on the west parcel, would become permanent open space.

What makes this project significant, according to conservation groups, is the 6,376 acres on the east parcel would forever be designated as open space and would be the connecting link between Martis Valley and the Mt. Rose Wilderness, creating 50,000 acres of contiguous open space. The groups say they have been fighting for this land for a long time, and it would be beneficial to the watershed, habitat, and scenic corridors.

“It is the final prize within Martis Valley,” said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch. “What makes the Martis Valley transfer unique and great is that a permanent conservation easement is put on the property. It won’t be developed on, ever. It gives us extra protection because the swap is not an even swap — we get more land and less development.”

Alexis Ollar, executive director of Mountain Area Preservation, echoed Mooers’ statements and noted the group has been in conversation with the developers for five years.

“This project is the culminating piece of preservation in Martis Valley,” Ollar said. “One of the more unique pieces of this project is we’ve got a landowner that is willing to work with environmentalists. It’s the new wave of environmentalism. You are able to get more done when you have a seat at the table.”

Bad for the Basin?

However, not all environmental organizations are thrilled with the project. Critics say that while the transfer of development rights benefits Martis Valley, it is detrimental to the Tahoe Basin. While only a portion of the project is proposed inside the Basin boundary, Lake Tahoe activists say it is significant enough to look at alternative proposals.

“I believe the project proposal represents an expansion of the ‘urban boundary’ of Lake Tahoe by proposing this development on the ridge. This is precedent setting and must not be taken lightly,” said community activist Ellie Waller. “While technically a majority of the project is not in the Tahoe Basin, Martis Valley West Parcel clearly cannot be separated from its larger regional context.”

To be approved, the project would need a number of entitlements, including amending the Martis Valley Community Plan and the Basin boundary. A general plan amendment to the North Tahoe Area General Plan would be needed to rezone 775 acres of the west parcel from timberland production use to residential and commercial use. Both Placer County and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency need to approve the project.

Darcie Goodman Collins, the League to Save Lake Tahoe’s executive director, said there are pros and cons to the project, and is concerned about changing the land use classification on the west parcel so development can occur. She said the league wants to make sure the development is done appropriately and that there are gains for the Basin.

“The transfer is good because of the preservation of large amounts of connected wildlife habitat, but we’re concerned about the development that will occur in the Basin and we’re actively advocating for an alternative that will ensure the largest amount of environmental gain,” Goodman Collins said. “The trade-off could be beneficial for the environment, and we want to make sure that is the case.”

The Sierra Club has a taken a similar position as the league, submitting comments on the project’s notice of preparation for the environmental impact report and noting issues with aesthetics and cumulative impacts.

“This project and the conservation opportunity attached to it represents a dilemma for the Sierra Club,” Terry Davis, director of the Mother Lode Chapter of the Sierra Club, wrote to Moonshine Ink. “On the one hand, the agreement reached by other conservation groups with Sierra Pacific Industries offers an opportunity to conserve important habitat, while on the other hand it accepts unprecedented large-scale development of a scenic ridge overlooking Lake Tahoe and the Martis Valley. We are tracking the project closely to see what it offers in terms of minimizing its harmful impacts.”  

Sierra Watch’s Mooers said he understands the concerns by the Lake Tahoe groups, but notes that there was always going to be some sort of development in the area.

“Some people would argue there is already too much development. We want to make sure it is a good project not only for Martis Valley, but for the Basin,” Mooers said. “In many ways, it is a matter of perspective. If you take a more landscape level approach, it is clear to see this agreement is a great benefit to the Lake Tahoe region.”

However, the league’s Goodman Collins points out that the land on the east parcel may never be developed and that the groups are “protecting on an assumption.” But Mooers says this project allows for certainty and that this is an opportunity to make sure the land is not developed 40 years from now. Others say it is not a fair trade.

“The precedent is if you save land outside the Basin, then you get to develop land inside the Basin,” said Ann Nichols, president of the North Tahoe Preservation Alliance. “It’s not apples and apples. It’s not equivalent value trades. It is a totally misleading deal.”

Blake Riva, a senior partner with East West Partners, noted that TRPA requires that if you want to develop within the Basin, you need to retire another portion within the Basin.  
“To the best of our ability, we structure a win-win with stakeholders,” Riva said. “Having a collaborative effort will help us achieve something remarkable here. It would be an incredible legacy for all of us.”

The draft environmental impact report is slated to come out in the fall, and Riva expects to have a 12- to 18-month public review process.

Project as a Precedent

A unique aspect of the Martis Valley West Parcel project is the use of transfer development rights (TDRs), which is a smart growth tool used to manage land development. Though less common in other areas, the exchange of zoning privileges happens often in the Basin due to TRPA’s transfer of development rights exchange program, and is on the rise in land use planning.

“It is kind of unique. It doesn’t happen that often,” Stacy Wydra, senior planner for Placer County, said of using transfer of development rights in projects.

Although TDRs may not be common, conservation groups say it is an important tool in preserving land.

“TDRs afford a community a way to do development in a smart way,” said Perry Norris, executive director of the Truckee Donner Land Trust.

East West Partners has used transfer of development rights before in the Town of Truckee.

“They asked to transfer development from Old Greenwood to keep the old airport flats,” said Stefanie Olivieri, founding board member of the Mountain Area Preservation. “I hope the community does more of them.”

Jeff Cowen, TRPA’s spokesperson, said the agency’s transfer of development rights program is “by far one of our most successful programs.” Cowen noted that the program works because TRPA has capped development in the Basin. There are 43,000 development rights within the Basin, which are moved around. TRPA established its program in 1987, and incorporated incentives for developers in 2012. It also works because development is transferred from more environmentally sensitive land to less environmentally sensitive land.

“We’re trying to promote more transfers because we get so much environmental benefit,” Cowen said. “People all over the world come to TRPA to see how we do it and learn how to do it. The interest in it has definitely picked up.”

Cowen said that the use of transferring development rights could work in the Martis Valley West Parcel project since the parcel has a density limit.

“It’s becoming more of a popular process in land use preservation,” Ollar said. “There is more thoughtful planning when it comes to land use. It allows for the public to be involved. I think we’re going to see a lot more transfer of development rights.”

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Reader comments so far...

Anyone who was in the Tahoe area over this July 4th holiday cannot honestly believe that more development is a good thing! The open space proposed here is fantastic!! I just don't believe the area can handle much more development. At peak times the roads currently can not handle vehicles in the basin. This past weekend the gridlock extended from the lake up & on to hi way 80. Any developers should be required to upgrade the infrastructure BEFORE any units are added to the area.

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January 10, 2019