With Squaw project approved, housing concerns (among others) linger | SierraSun.com

With Squaw project approved, housing concerns (among others) linger

OLYMPIC VALLEY, Calif. — Up to 1,493 guest lodging rooms, 574 new full-time jobs, housing for 287 new employees and an indoor waterpark are just a few of the things planned for the Village at Squaw Valley.

After another long and contentious public meeting Nov. 15 in the Kings Beach North Tahoe Event Center, the controversial 25-year plan to redevelop the village has been approved.

The Placer County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to approve the plan, which has been roughly five years in the making.

Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery, the lone supervisor who represents the Tahoe portion of the county, was opposed.

"We really wish we'd had a 5-0 vote," Squaw Valley Ski Holdings President and CEO Andy Wirth told the Sierra Sun in an interview on Nov. 16. "Hearing the discussion and the background on each of the supervisor's votes, I look back and say we honestly should have had a 5-0 vote."

Wirth called the plan's environmental impact report the "most comprehensive EIR ever compiled by Placer County," and said he was extremely proud of the work that has gone into the project.

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But not everyone agrees.

Of the approximately 120 people who stood to participate in the public comment session of the meeting, many expressed concerns that the project is too large and would negatively impact the environment, including the clarity of nearby Lake Tahoe.

"If you want to see God, climb to the top of a mountain," North Shore resident Craig Back said in his comments to the board. "But I never heard anyone say if you want to see God, go to a waterpark."

Though two smaller redevelopment alternatives were presented to the board by commenters, SVSH attorney Whit Manley told the board in his closing comments that those plans are not viable.

In final deliberations, Placer County Board of Supervisors Chairman Robert Weygandt said, "If we don't approve something that's economically viable, nobody's going to build it."

THE HOUSING BLAME GAME

Truckee Town Manager Tony Lashbrook spoke on behalf of the town during public comment, asking the board to require SVSH to provide housing for all of its employees — not just half of the full-time positions, which is what the county currently requires.

"The Placer County General Plan requires resort development to provide housing for half of their new employees," Lashbrook said in his comments to the board. "Unfortunately, this policy converts seasonal workers to full time equivalents, which underestimates the number of employees to be housed."

Lashbrook said that since the nature of many resort jobs is seasonal, and the plan doesn't include enough housing to accommodate those employees, the burden would fall on neighboring communities.

"We're not set up to accommodate 600 seasonal workers in Truckee, and it isn't our responsibility," he told the Sierra Sun in an interview on Nov. 16.

According to a letter from Truckee Town Mayor Joan Jones to the Placer County Board of Supervisors on Nov. 10: "The Town applauds the County policy requiring projects to provide 50 percent of their full-time employee (FTEE) workforce housing demand, the housing needs in this region dictate that greater efforts to accommodate a higher number of the total seasonal workforce must be made before this project is supported by the Board of Supervisors."

During final deliberations at the Nov. 15 hearing, Supervisor Jack Duran acknowledged the challenges in providing workforce housing adjacent to the development, calling it "some of the most expensive real estate in the world."

Lashbrook told the Sierra Sun he feels it is the resort's responsibility to provide housing, while Wirth said community leaders need to do more.

"Other communities have found ways to have public-private partnerships to get things done, but the fact that these entities in this region are seemingly frozen is an unacceptable circumstance — everybody knows it," said Wirth.

The project is expected to create 574 full-time jobs at build-out, and is required to provide housing for half of those workers, 287, Placer County Supervising Planner Alex Fisch said in an email to the Sierra Sun on Nov. 18.

Since housing for 99 employees will be removed as the plan is built out, those units will also need to be replaced. As a result, the replacement housing for 99 employees, combined with the required housing for 287 new full-time employees, will result in housing for a total of 386 employees.

"In my professional opinion, given the relatively long period of time over which the project will be implemented, there is a value to being able to further study the employee housing needs 10-15 years into the future to determine the best way to meet the housing needs and opportunities at that time," Fisch said in the email.

WORKING ON SOLUTIONS?

Meanwhile, Wirth said local civic leaders need to step up and contribute solutions to the region's housing crisis.

"I can assure you that over the past 30 days, I have been actively engaged in developing solutions in transit, actively engaged in solutions with my executive team and with our funds in developing workforce housing solutions right now," Wirth said. "Who else has?"

As for Truckee, the Nov. 10 letter from Mayor Jones outlines measures the town has taken since its incorporation in 1993 regarding affordable housing requirements for town-approved projects, including:

adopted an inclusionary housing law requiring 15 percent of market-rate homes be made available to "affordable households for all new development",

adopted a law that requires "the provision of workforce housing commensurate with the number of jobs created by the project" — while there is no exact percentage, according to the letter, town projects that generate a large volume of employees are held to a higher expectation than smaller projects; and

constructed 380 affordable housing units.

The letter also lists its recent allocation of $1.3 million in general funds for the Truckee Artist Lofts (which will yield 77 affordable housing units) and $1 million for 138 market-rate units planned for the Triumph Development project at the old Barsell property in town.

According to an email from Squaw Valley Public Relations Director Liesl Kenney, the Squaw redevelopment project includes housing for 300 employees, and the resort currently offers employee housing for 43 tenants.

"The resort is committed to helping seasonal employees find housing in the Reno/Tahoe area," Kenney said in the email. "Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows is master leasing homes in the local area to provide full time staff access to housing in the area. We also started up a Residential Rewards program, offering season passes to local homeowners who are willing to rent their space to Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows employees: last year we added more than 15 properties on the Residential Rewards program."

WHAT IT MEANS FOR 'KEEP SQUAW TRUE'

As for the project's other impacts and what's next, it appears litigation from groups opposed to its approval is imminent.

In a statement released late Tuesday after the supervisors' 4-1 vote, nonprofit conservation group Sierra Watch said it is "committed to taking the project to court."

"Approval of this project was not only irresponsible, it was also illegal," Sierra Watch Staff Attorney Isaac Silverman said in the statement. "California has robust environmental laws for exactly this situation, and we are confident that reason and justice will prevail."

In a follow-up interview with the Sierra Sun on Nov. 16, Sierra Watch Executive Director Tom Mooers said, "We weren't surprised by yesterday's vote."

"We've been projecting the county would approve this development, and that's one of the reasons we've been developing a rock hard legal case against the approval," he said.

Sierra Watch created the campaign "Keep Squaw True," which opposed the redevelopment because of its size and the fact that plans include an indoor waterpark, among other reasons.

Supervisor Kirk Uhler asked Mooers during the hearing what it meant to "Keep Squaw True," and told the audience that this had never been clear to him.

In a later interview, Mooers told the Sun, "Fundamentally, it means we 'Keep Squaw True' to the values that make Tahoe special in the first place."

He said those values are the great outdoors, mountain adventure and sense of community, and that the hearing was "reaffirming of everything we're fighting for."

The overall mood of Sierra Watch and its supporters wasn't disappointment, Mooers said, but a renewed commitment. He said most of his organizations supporters were "as fired up as ever."

"In some ways, yesterday's vote might look like the finish line, but it's not," said Mooers. "It's really just another starting line in our effort to 'Keep Squaw True.'"

More online

Visit bit.ly/2g0vUtT for a full social media recap of Tuesday’s hearing, featuring several hours of video, photo and commentary updates from reporter Amanda Rhoades.