Avalanche control dropped along Alpine Meadows Road | SierraSun.com
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Avalanche control dropped along Alpine Meadows Road

TANYA CANINO, Sun News Service

Despite this winter’s blue skies and dry weather, an avalanche threat looms over Alpine Meadows Road.

For the first time in about 30 years, the road is not protected by avalanche control, unleashing potential danger to those who drive the road and live along it.

Placer County, which owns the road, will have to “let nature take its course and clean up afterward,” according to Tim Hackworth, director of the county’s public works department.

“I have no alternative,” he said Tuesday.

A legal domino effect over liability has created a situation in which avalanche control methods of the past 25 years are no longer workable. Up until this season, Placer County hired Alpine Meadows Ski Area to provide avalanche forecasting and control to protect the road. The ski area controlled the avalanches with handcharges and artillery exploded on private property owned by Alpine Springs County Water District and Troy Caldwell.

In this scenario, Alpine Meadows Ski Area indemnified the county and the private property owners, guaranteeing that if something went wrong the ski area would be responsible.

“Generally, everyone would like it to stay as status quo where the ski area takes the costs and indemnifies everyone. We’re not willing to do that anymore,” said Larry Heywood, director of ski patrol at Alpine Meadows Ski Area.

For the homeowners who use the road and live on it, without the status quo, they are unprotected. The issue has mired the residents of the valley in controversy.

Tim Longo, who lives on Alpine Meadows Road, is frustrated with the lack of progress on an agreement to provide avalanche control for the road, blaming the delay on a mild winter.

“It’s a political ping pong ball. Without snow, it makes it worse. It makes the players sit a little longer,” Longo said. “The county is skirting the issue and leaving us to fight among ourselves.”

Alpine Meadows Ski Area is not willing to accept the liability for avalanche control because things have changed in the Alpine Meadows valley since 1974, when Alpine Meadows Ski Area agreed to provide avalanche control for the county road, Heywood said.

When avalanche control was first provided, there were few homes along the road and the ski area was the main beneficiary. Those homes were also off the road itself and large snow berms acted as a natural barrier to the homes, he said.

In the 1980s, the make-up of Alpine Meadows neighborhoods changed, as second homes were converted to permanent residences and new homes were able to be built in the avalanche zones. Garages were allowed as well and homeowners now clear the areas next to their garages and in front of their homes, displacing that natural barrier of a snow berm, Heywood said.

Ski area personnel began to reconsider the liability involved after a Jan. 24, 1997 accident brought the issue to a head.

“We shot down an avalanche that damaged several homes,” Heywood said.

No one was injured, but property damage occurred and one homeowner’s insurance company decided to sue Alpine Meadows Ski Area for the cost of the damage, $51,213.63, according to Tom Skjelstad, general manager of the Alpine Springs County Water District.

The ski area responded by suing the homeowner, the county and the water district. But, the insurance company dropped the suit because of the potential legal fees of finding out who was liable for the damage.

“We wanted to clean this up in court. We wanted to go to court over a $50,000 claim instead of a multi-million dollar claim with deaths,” said Heywood, referring to a future avalanche’s potential damage.

Instead, the ski area gave the Alpine Springs County Water District and Troy Caldwell a 30-day notice of terminating their 1974 agreements which gave the ski area liability and access to the private lands, Skjelstad said.

And, on Dec. 14, Alpine Springs County Water District reacted by no longer allowing ski area personnel to enter its 40-acre undeveloped property to perform avalanche control.

The water district, serving 600 customers with water, sewer, fire protection and a park, cannot afford to take responsibility for the ski area’s avalanche control for the road. Skjelstad said, without the ski area taking liability, the water district’s insurance company would not cover them if a homeowner sued the district for an avalanche that slid from the water district’s land.

“We need our defense paid by our insurance company and it’s doubtful they would,” he said.

He said the district is covered by government code if a natural avalanche caused damage to someone below – something that Alpine Meadows Ski Area’s attorney, John Fagan, disputes.

Likewise, Caldwell said, he cannot allow ski area personnel on his 460 acres for avalanche control at this time. His land skirts one mile of the county road.

Alpine Springs County Water District asked the county to indemnify it for the actions of the county’s contractor, Alpine Meadows Ski Area, Skjelstad said, adding that the county refused.

Placer County believes that the ski area is responsible for its actions.

“If there’s a contractor building a bridge and through their actions and negligence, something bad happens, they are liable for that,” Hackworth said.

Heywood said the ski area is able to protect the road and its users, but not the homeowners who live along the road.

There is still a contract between the county and the ski area for the road, but “if he doesn’t have access to the hillside, he can’t keep the road open,” Hackworth said.

While homeowners have called the county to represent them, Hackworth said the county’s concern is only with keeping the road open or closed. If there is a dangerous situation, the county would close the road.

This worries Placer County Sheriff’s Capt. Kent Hawthorne, who is meeting with county officials today about the problem.

Hawthorne and North Tahoe Fire Protection District Capt. Duane Whitelaw both said as emergency personnel, they have to deal with whatever the situation is, even if the road is closed.

He said the parties involved need to compromise and realize the bigger need of the community, public safety and the right to some assurance of safe passage on the roadway.

The situation is frustrating to the ski area, which needs the road to stay in business.

“We certainly have a significant interest,” Heywood said.

But he said the ski area has offered a lot, including providing snowplowing for the road and only being reimbursed $300 by the county for every time the ski area conducts avalanche control. The cost to Alpine Meadows Ski Area is at least $1,000 a mission, plus the hidden costs of personnel training and ammunition. In a big winter, the ski area can spend $50,000 on the road’s avalanche control, he said.

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