Sierra Watch Makes Case Against Squaw Valley Development Approvals

Auburn, CA…Conservationists made their legal case against a massive development in Squaw Valley yesterday, submitting their opening brief in a court challenge to Placer County approvals that would transform North Tahoe with a project of a size, scale, and scope the region has never seen. Sierra Watch’s legal brief shows that Placer County violated state law when it approved KSL Capital Partners’ proposed high-rises and indoor waterpark–without studying the impacts on critical issues, including Tahoe’s famed water quality, increased danger of wildfires, scarcity of local water supplies, and traffic.

“Our brief spells it out in black and white: not only is KSL’s project a threat to the most basic mountain values of the Tahoe Sierra, approval of the project violated state law,” says Tom Mooers, Executive Director of Sierra Watch.

KSL Capital Partners, a Denver-based private equity firm, proposes to remake North Tahoe with 850 new units in a series of high-rise condo hotels, along with a 90,000 square-foot indoor waterpark–as wide as a Walmart and nearly three times as tall. The project would take 25 years to construct and add thousands of car trips to Tahoe’s crowded roads. The development has now run into a granite wall of determined opposition.

“Our fight to turn back this extreme proposal from out of state developers and to Keep Squaw True is just the latest chapter in a long history of Tahoe conservation,” says Mooers of Sierra Watch. “It’s another example of how we band together to protect the mountains we love.”

The controversy began when KSL purchased Squaw Valley in 2010, citing the “great growth potential” of its new real estate asset. In 2015, the private equity firm released its final proposed development plan, asking Placer County for 25 years’ worth of entitlements to transform Tahoe with a project of a size, scale, and scope the region has never seen.

New development would include:

– high-rise condo hotels, many eight stories tall, containing 1,493 new rooms–as many bedrooms as three of South Lake Tahoe’s Stateline casinos combined–over an area greater than six city blocks;

– 90,000-square-foot indoor water park that KSL calls a “Mountain Adventure Camp,” standing 96 feet tall with rides and attractions including indoor waterslides artificial rivers, indoor water-skiing, indoor sky-diving, and video arcades; and

– 274,000 square feet of commercial development–roughly three times the current commercial area and enough to build a mall covering more than five football fields.

In response, Sierra Watch launched its campaign to Keep Squaw True.

Thousands of supporters have signed the petition to deny the project. Placer County’s own Squaw Valley Municipal Advisory Council sounded clear opposition at the project, recommending that the County deny it outright. Hundreds of local residents showed up to Placer County’s public hearing and stood in opposition. Sierra Watch even sketched out a compromise proposal for limited development.

Regardless, on November 15, 2016, by a 4-1 vote, the Placer County Board of Supervisors voted to approve the project–with the only ‘no’ vote coming from the Supervisor who represents Tahoe and Squaw Valley.

“The public planning process was neither public nor planning–the public was ignored, and any actual planning was absent,” says Mooers of Sierra Watch. “The good news is that we can hold decision-makers to the clear standards of state law.”

The primary law in question is the California Environmental Quality Act, better known as CEQA, which requires Placer County to research and write an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to fully assess and disclose the negative impacts the new development would have on Squaw Valley and North Lake Tahoe, and to lessen those impacts to the extent feasible.

However, according to the Sierra Watch brief, “the County approved an EIR for the Project that does not begin to meet CEQA’s legal standards of adequacy.”

A copy of the brief is available HERE.

Critical areas where the County’s analysis fell short include:

– Tahoe and Lake Clarity: The famous clarity of Tahoe’s blue water is arguably the region’s most fundamental natural asset. But KSL’s project would pump more than 1,300 cars–and their pollution–into the Tahoe Basin every day, threatening ongoing efforts to Keep Tahoe Blue. According to the brief, “The EIR omits critical information regarding the Lake Tahoe Basin and fails to determine whether the project would have significant impacts on this resource.”

Pictured: Tahoe from above

– Fire Danger and Evacuation Hazards: California is learning hard lessons about over-development in fire-prone areas. But instead of heeding these lessons, KSL’s Squaw Valley development is proposed for a “Very High” Fire Severity Zone–with only one way out; in fact, evacuation would take more than ten hours in the event of a catastrophic wildfire. “Given the severity of the fire danger in the area,” the brief points out, “the FEIR is shockingly deficient.”

– Traffic: Traffic in Tahoe is bad; KSL’s proposed development would make it much worse–adding thousands of new cars to the region’s roadways every day. Yet Placer County downplayed the impact and claimed future measures would ‘manage’ the cars traveling to and trying to park in Squaw Valley–an approach to planning that clearly violates CEQA.

– Climate Change: KSL and its new ski resort partnership, Alterra, claim to be good stewards of the environment. But their project puts them squarely on the wrong side of climate history. It would add about 40,000 metric tons of CO2 each year at buildout–more than 30 times the threshold of significance. According to the brief, “Because the EIR fails to consider feasible mitigation for the Project’s significant climate change impacts, the Project approval cannot stand.”

– Water Supplies and State Jurisdiction: Squaw Valley’s water supplies are limited; even the primary local water provider has proposed piping water from Martis Valley to meet future needs. And the state of California could assume jurisdiction at any time. “Given the scarcity of water in the area, the water supply identified by the EIR may be illusory,” Sierra Watch argues. “The EIR is therefore inadequate as a matter of law.”

The brief concludes by asking the Court to reverse Placer County’s approvals.

“Our goal isn’t just to win a lawsuit,” says Mooers of Sierra Watch. “Our goal is to bring people–KSL, the County, conservationists, and the community–to the table to work together on a long term vision that’s worthy of Tahoe.”

“It’s a long-term commitment, and we’re just getting started.”

The court hearing is set for April 26, 2018.

About Sierra Watch

Sierra Watch works to protect great places in the Sierra Nevada. Founded in 2001, the Nevada City based non-profit has built a remarkable track record in land preservation in Tahoe’s Martis Valley, on Donner Summit, and for other treasured Sierra landscapes. For more information, visit