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Court halts ‘reckless development’ of luxury homes in Tahoe

Court halts ‘reckless development’ of luxury homes in Tahoe

The developers behind housing project Martis Valley West wanted to build hundreds of high-end homes in a gated community on a forested ridgeline hugging the northern rim of the Lake Tahoe Basin.

But in their environmental review, they stopped short of disclosing the impact all 760 of those homes would have on Lake Tahoe’s famous clear water, including the traffic driving between the development and the Tahoe Basin. Pollution caused by cars and traffic is one of the leading causes of Tahoe’s declining lake clarity.

This week, a state court decision halted the development, stating that Placer County’s review of the Martis Valley West project was “inadequate” because the developers didn’t disclose the project’s impact on traffic in Lake Tahoe. 

The decision made by California’s Third District Court of Appeals is a victory for a grassroots movement that’s been at work for decades to stop development and protect the sweeping landscapes of Lake Tahoe and Martis Valley, just beyond the Tahoe Basin, near Truckee. 


“Hopefully what we’re showing in Tahoe is that when reckless development projects threaten places we love, we can work together to protect them up and down the range of the Sierra Nevada,” said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch, an environmental nonprofit that fights development in the northern Sierra.

Sierra Watch worked with the League to Save Lake Tahoe and Mountain Area Preservation to fight the Martis Valley West development in court. 

This week’s ruling also reinforces a new precedent that’s emerging to hold more developers accountable for their impacts on Lake Tahoe by closing a long-standing loophole that lets projects located just outside of the basin skirt Tahoe’s stricter environmental regulations. 

In 1969, the states of Nevada and California, with the federal government, created an environmental regulatory agency charged with the mission to protect Lake Tahoe’s famous water clarity and environment. Today, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) holds all development accountable to a high set of environmental standards, called thresholds, which were created to restore Lake Tahoe’s environment. But the TRPA’s jurisdiction only extends to the watershed within the Lake Tahoe Basin, meaning that development proposed just beyond those limits doesn’t have to adhere to the TRPA’s environmental thresholds.

But last summer, in a decision that sided with Sierra Watch and set back a massive “Vegas-style” development proposed at Palisades Tahoe ski resort, the California Third District Court of Appeals sent a strong message to developers throughout the greater Tahoe-Truckee region: If they want to build near Tahoe, they need to account for their impacts on Tahoe’s environment.

This week’s ruling reinforced that precedent.

“The decision shows an understanding of the issues affecting Lake Tahoe and the strides we are making within the basin to balance limited growth with environmental improvements,” said Jeff Cowen, spokesperson for the TRPA, in an emailed statement. “As population centers outside the Lake Tahoe watershed continue to grow, TRPA recognizes the important role our transportation system plays in answering visitor demand, supporting businesses, reducing emissions, and improving the quality of life for residents. These challenges can be met by expanding and strengthening partnerships inside and outside the region.”

The project’s environmental review found Martis Valley West would have added nearly 4,000 daily car trips to Tahoe’s roads, the League to Save Lake Tahoe said in a statement.

Traffic and car pollution are already a huge problem in Tahoe, and adding cars will only exacerbate the issue, said Darcie Goodman Collins, CEO of the League to Save Lake Tahoe, a nonprofit that’s fought for more than 60 years to protect Tahoe’s environment. The league is famous for its slogan: “Keep Tahoe Blue.” Road degradation and stormwater pollution from roadways are among the leading causes of clarity loss in Lake Tahoe.

The court’s decision forces the developers to analyze how their project impacts Tahoe’s environment, and it prevents the development from moving forward until that analysis is completed and weighed by decision-makers.

“It’s a big win for the lake,” Collins said. “Ultimately, [the court’s decision] means that any development project proposed — whether it be inside the basin or outside of the basin — has to consider and attempt to address any impacts to the lake.”

In the 1960s, early in the League to Save Lake Tahoe’s history, the group successfully fought against a development frenzy that would have built a high-speed freeway around the entire lake, a huge bridge over Emerald Bay, and turned the basin into one giant city. Had it not been for the league and environmental activists at that time, Lake Tahoe could very well have been in the middle of a sprawling city, Collins said. 

Fast-forward 60 years, and while Tahoe has largely gotten a grasp on excessive growth inside the basin, development on the other side of the mountains has only picked up pace. 

Sierra Pacific Industries, the landowner that proposed the Martis Valley West development, sought to build 760 homes in a gated development on land that is currently pristine forest. There are rudimentary dirt roads in the vicinity, but the development would have brought with it new roads, commercial malls and a sprawling suburb in the middle of a forest that’s prone to wildfire danger. 

With so many new homes built just over the ridge from Lake Tahoe — hardly a 10-minute drive away from the water — the new residents and tourists it attracted would surely drive into the basin. The added traffic would have also complicated evacuation efforts in natural emergencies like wildfires and massive winter storms.

The project faced overwhelming opposition from local community members. Placer County’s own planning commission advised against the development because of traffic and evacuation concerns. But, in 2016, Placer County Board of Supervisors went against local opinion and the advice of their planning experts when they approved the development in a 4-1 vote. 

Tahoe’s lone representative on the board cast the single vote against the project; the other four supervisors represent conservative-leaning districts in Sacramento’s sprawling eastern suburbs. 

Whether it’s overtourism, trash and pollution, impacts on wildlife, traffic or declining lake clarity — Tahoe is feeling the squeeze from the millions of people who live a short drive from the basin, in regions such as Sacramento, Reno and the Bay Area. 

Tahoe is an important natural resource for all of those people, and the court’s decision this week reinforced the need to protect Tahoe from development on its fringes so generations can continue to enjoy its beautiful, fragile environment.

“If you put a project close to Tahoe, people are going to go to Tahoe,” Collins said. 

Some 20 years ago, concerned local residents in North Tahoe and Truckee formed Sierra Watch to stop massive development from taking over Martis Valley. Today, the high-alpine valley is largely open space, protected by conservation easements, with trails for people to hike and bike on. The support to save Martis Valley runs deep in this community — many residents have committed years of their lives to protecting it.

The Martis Valley West development on the ridge is the last piece of the conservation puzzle, Sierra Watch’s Mooers said. 
 
“This individual development was a threat to everything we love about Tahoe,” Mooers said. “The Martis Valley West development would have been bad news for everything, from how many stars we see in the sky to how available is workforce housing for the local community, as well as issues about traffic and the lake and fire danger. It was important for us to stop this individual project.”

When the Placer County Board of Supervisors approved the Martis Valley West development in spite of the public opposition, Sierra Watch was already prepared to fight the development in court. They remain committed to protecting Martis Valley.

“The best outcome is for that entire property to be purchased and protected forever. We’ve been working on that for a long time and we’re going to keep working on it,” Mooers said. “This week’s decision is a step in that direction.”



https://www.sfgate.com/renotahoe/article/court-halts-Tahoe-luxury-development-16923915.php