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The Other Ski Resort Development

Northstar Master Plan contrasts Squaw’s controversy
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Northstar’s new master plan includes over 700 acres of new skiable terrain with seven new lifts and additional snowmaking coverage, all to be done over 20 years. See a complete map of the changes here.

Ski resort development in Truckee/North Lake Tahoe over the last decade has characteristically been met with firm opposition by both organized groups and the public at large — see Moonshine’s November 2016 story, Squaw’s Future Decided. The Northstar Master Plan, however, was approved by the Placer County Board of Supervisors in a 5-0 vote on Feb. 21 with relatively little public opposition.

“From what you saw in the other large projects that have gone through the process recently, our approach to it is fundamentally different,” said Andrew Strain, vice president of planning and government affairs at Northstar California.

The plan itself plans for development of seven new lifts, including a gondola; 25 additional named ski trails and 400 acres of newly gladed (thinned forest) skiing, including 550 acres of new skiable terrain on Sawtooth Ridge; about 300 acres of additional snowmaking; three new on-mountain lodges/warming huts; relocation of the cross-country center; and renovations to existing structures such as The Summit Deck and Grill. Although these changes are extensive, the process that Northstar used to craft where the development would occur involved a unique approach to community outreach, called the Habitat Management Plan (HMP), crafted with the help of local conservation groups Sierra Watch and Mountain Area Preservation (MAP). Work on the HMP began in 2005 and was finalized in January 2009.

“The Habitat Management Plan was born out of our settlement agreement with Northstar,” said MAP Executive Director Alexis Ollar in an email to Moonshine Ink. “The HMP outlines areas where improvements can be done and where development or even recreation is not suitable. There are large swaths of land under the HMP that are now protected under conservation easements as well.”

Strain said this blueprint provided a guideline for the Master Plan itself, and that the relationship between Northstar and groups like MAP and Sierra Watch is largely due to Strain’s predecessor, Tim Beck, who is now the vice president of mountain planning at Vail Resorts.

“From what I can tell, [Beck, Sierra Watch, and MAP] spent a lot of time out in the field together, looking at the different parts of the mountain in order to come up with both the HMP and the Master Plan themselves,” Strain said. “I think it’s fair to say he took to the idea that ‘we’re better working together than working against one another.’”

The project isn’t entirely without public criticism, however. Some of the primary concerns raised in public comments throughout the public review process are about environmental impacts, groundwater impacts to the Aspen Grove community, land use, and traffic.

Many of the comment letters to the Master Plan’s Draft EIR were from members of the Aspen Grove community, who claimed that runoff from an infiltration pond installed before Vail’s acquisition of Northstar was damaging their property and killing off many old-growth aspen trees. The residents were worried further development would exacerbate the issue, but Strain said that the Master Plan should not increase the drainage.

The land use concerns regarded Northstar’s proposed amendment to the zoning restriction on their Timberland Production Zones (TPZ) — land set aside for timber production that did not originally allow for ski resort development. When the Placer County Board of Supervisors approved the Master Plan they also approved an amendment, which now allows for conditional development of ski runs and facilities on TPZ land outside of the Tahoe Basin.

According to Strain, regarding the rezoning of TPZ land for ski purposes, “Many of the other counties in the Sierras that have ski resorts or ski facilities in their county, they’ve already done this. So frankly, Placer County was perhaps not among the leaders.”

One of the details that sets the Master Plan apart from other local ski area developments, is that it does not include additional real estate units, and is not being advertised as an attempt to bring additional users to the resort. Although there are multiple real estate projects at various stages of development at Northstar, such as Mountainside at Northstar, they are all managed by separate entities from the ski resort. The Master Plan actually anticipates very few additional skier visits as a result of the plan and includes no additional day-skier parking besides 20 spaces near the new cross-country track.

The purpose of the project, as outlined in its Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR), is to “improve skier circulation within existing terrain and diversify the types of terrain available to skiers and snowboarders at the resort.” According to the DEIR, this includes maintaining Northstar’s competitiveness through upgrading and balancing existing services, staying consistent with the HMP, and increasing the variety of their terrain.

Strain said there are no existing proposals as of yet for which parts of the plan Northstar will begin to work on first, and that it will be a gradual process over the next 20 years.

“It’s staying with it and having the perspective that we’re in this for the long haul. It’s a marathon and not a sprint,” Strain said. “Being a part of the community and making sure that we’re communicating what we’re doing and our intent has been a big part of that.”

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May 10, 2018