Donner Summit district considering eminent domain
December 17, 2008
DONNER SUMMIT “-The next fight over Royal Gorge on Donner Summit may be at the bottom of Serene Lakes.
The Sierra Lakes County Water District is exploring options to gain control over the lake bottoms of Serene Lakes, potentially turning to eminent domain from current property owner Royal Gorge.
“It’s not like we’re into taking away people’s private property, but we do need to control our water quality ” it’s our drinking water,” said Bill Oudegeest, board member with the district. “The best way to control the water quality is to own the vessel it sits in.”
One proposal to increase water capacity for Royal Gorge’s potentially 950-unit development plan ” dredging ” is another concern the district would like to have control over, Oudegeest said.
“If the lake is made unusable or less usable, we don’t have the wells in the neighborhood to take care of it,” he said.
Additionally, Oudegeest said the acquisition would give the district control over the lake edges for access.
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Controlling access will be important as population grows and recreational uses increase, said Gene Bowles, vice president of the board.
He said not holding the title for the lake bottom has also caused problems for the district in the past.
“We were sued as a water district in the past when the owner demanded royalties on the water,” Bowles said. “It was rejected by a judge, but we still had to spend a lot of money.”
But Mike Livak, project manager with Royal Gorge, said that case didn’t seem to have direct correlation with the lake bottom, and also said the developers, Foster and Syme, have offered to negotiate with the district to give them the rights they may need.
“We don’t see the need for the district to spend a lot of time or money on a process that has no return for the rate payers,” Livak said. “We’re open to discussion on an agreement to grant them whatever they may need.”
That could mean an easement or license agreement with the water district, Livak said.
He said without a formal project plan, Royal Gorge would be hesitant to give the lake bottom up outright.
Serene Lakes resident Micky Gray said he, and many of his neighbors, support the acquisition.
“Everybody I’ve talked to has been in favor of it,” Gray said. “Basically they are making it the way it should have been originally when the district was created.”
John Falk, lobbyist for the Tahoe Sierra Board of Realtors, said provided the district can demonstrate overriding public need for the acquisition, and the property owner is justly compensated, eminent domain isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“The Fifth Amendment clearly allows for it,” Falk said. “But if they can come to some sort of agreement that sounds like the best of both worlds.”
The district, which started the process about a year ago, is now waiting for an official valuation on the lake bottom, Bowles said.
Then Royal Gorge can choose to accept the valuation as fair market value, or get their own appraisal, leaving a judge to decide between the two, Oudegeest said.