Martis Valley West developer, opponents look to final decision in September | SierraSun.com

Martis Valley West developer, opponents look to final decision in September

A local resident holds a sign that says "LISTEN TO THE PEOPLE" during the July 7 Placer County Planning Commission hearing of the Martis Valley West proposal.
Amanda Rhoades / Sierra Sun |

Taking ‘a stand for Tahoe’

Aside from the many people who spoke against the project on July 7, hundreds of other residents and regional officials took to social media or issued statements to the media to laud the commission’s decision. Below are just a couple of those remarks, as submitted to the Sierra Sun:

Tom Mooers, Sierra Watch Executive Director: “Today’s vote is great news for everyone who loves Tahoe. It’s not necessarily the end of the road for the project, but it’s a clear indication that it has no place in North Lake Tahoe. This is a great demonstration of real leadership — the commission was willing to take a stand for Tahoe and for Placer County. And it’s yet another example of how we can work together to protect the places we love.”

Darcie Goodman Collins, League to Save Lake Tahoe Executive Director: “By voting to not adopt the Martis Valley West Specific Plan and to reject its inadequate environmental review, Planning Commissioners showed that they had clearly heard the valid concerns expressed by hundreds of community members and stakeholders, who for months have expressed alarm that the proposal offered no solutions to the negative impacts of the project. Approval of the project would have set a dangerous precedent. Developers must not be allowed to get off the hook of proposing projects that threaten Lake Tahoe without providing solutions or adjusting their proposals to reduce such threats.”

More online: Visit bit.ly/1JJcOVC, mvwpfacts.com and savetahoeforests.com to learn more about the Martis Valley West Parcel project, including arguments for and against. Visit bit.ly/1U7sORL and brockwaycampground.com to learn more about the Brockway Campground proposal.

KINGS BEACH, Calif. — Placer County’s Planning Commission voted July 7 to recommend the Board of Supervisors deny the controversial Martis Valley West Specific Plan and its associated development project.

More than 300 concerned citizens filled rows of seats inside the North Tahoe Event Center. Extra chairs were brought out until there weren’t any left, and even then people continued to trickle in.

Many audience members held up signs that said “LISTEN TO THE PEOPLE” and “DENY MARTIS VALLEY WEST” while the commission heard updates to the plan’s environmental impact report.

When the commission reopened public comment, there were several pages of sign-ups from people all hoping to weigh in on the project. Despite the 3-minute limit given to each speaker, the comment session lasted for two hours.

“If you add more residences in and around Highway 267 you’re making a huge mistake because you’re just adding to the inevitable gridlock and the inevitable wrecks you’re going to have on 267. And yes, they will involve fatalities,” said resident Ben Tyler, who told the commission he’s worked as a driver for the Tahoe Area Regional Transit. “(Highway) 267 is one of the steepest, if not the steepest, grades in California.”

At the end of public comment, commissioners debated each other before the crowd.

“Some people are concerned about 760 homes, but if you go on the other side of the road and build 1,360, you’re going to have the same impacts … at any rate, it’s one way or the other for the future,” said Commissioner Mickey Gray.

Gray joined the majority in a 5-2 decision to deny the Martis Valley West project. Commissioners Richard Johnson and Jeffrey Moss were opposed.

While residents are celebrating the decision as a major win for protecting the region from development, the controversy is far from over, as the commission’s vote is only a recommendation to the Placer County Board of Supervisors, who have the ultimate say in the matter.

“We hope the board will consider the project based on its merits,” Blake Riva, Managing Partner of developer Mountainside Partners, said in a follow-up interview with the Sun.

According to Placer County, the project will be before supervisors at their Sept. 13 meeting at the North Tahoe Event Center in Kings Beach. Initially, officials eyed the July 26 meeting at Lake Tahoe, but officials on Thursday opted to postpone that meeting until September.

Safety Concerns

At the July 7 meeting, it was clear core resident concerns center on increased traffic, increased wildfire risk and the effectiveness of current evacuation plans, should an emergency occur.

Several people, including representatives from local fire agencies and law enforcement, pointed out that when you bring more homes into the area, you’re bringing more people, which will increase traffic as well as the potential for more wildfires.

“If we had to evacuate the entire basin on a busy weekend, there’s no question that would be a challenging thing for the entire first responder community to pull off,” said Placer County Office of Emergency Services Program Manager John McEldowney. “On the other hand, that holds true for the entire western slope of California.”

California Highway Patrol Cpt. Ryan Stonebraker said his concerns aren’t related to any one development but with new development in the region as a whole.

“The more population there is, the more tourists there are, the more things happen. I can tell you that personally just working the Fourth of July,” he said.

North Tahoe Fire’s Beth Kenna, a public information officer who said she was at the meeting on behalf of the fire chief, read a statement before the commission, part of which read: “In regards to this issue, we are not confident that our concerns have been adequately addressed by the applicants.”

In his follow-up interview with the Sun, Riva said that Martis Valley West area would have its own evacuation plan.

Further, he said current evacuation plans do exist in the region and along Highway 267 between Lake Tahoe and Truckee, contrary to some of the comments made in the meeting.

“If there’s a need for an evacuation, 267 will go to three lanes out and one lane in,” he said.

According to Placer County, evacuation plans for the region are based on a larger planned population density in Martis Valley than the project would achieve, and staff on July 7 reported that effects of adding the homes on the evacuation in the region overall would be minimal.

“There’s no question in my mind that first responders can pull off an evacuation of any area in the basin if they were called to do so,” McEldowney added. “I’m not saying it’s going to go perfectly, but I have full confidence in our first responders to get it done.”

Public concern over bringing new people into the region is apparent — particularly with the meeting happening on the heels of the recent Fourth of July weekend that saw thousands of people flood the North Shore, leading to traffic congestion on Interstate 80, along with highways 28, 89 and 267 throughout the region.

Still, Riva said residents should understand the project is about a lot more than if new homes should be built — it’s about transferring land uses to allow for fewer homes to be built, as well as conserving thousands of acres of open space.

In other words, the question is not whether the community supports new development in Martis Valley, Riva said. It’s whether or not development in an area already zoned for single-family homes could be transferred across Highway 267 — meaning that if the board of supervisors votes to the deny it, then there is no guarantee that the land in the east will be protected.

A Complicated History

In all, the 7,568 acres of Martis Valley land owned by Sierra Pacific Industries extends from the Waddle Ranch Preserve, up the slopes of Martis Peak, and across Highway 267 toward Northstar Resort.

The East parcel consists of 6,376 acres. Of the 1,192 acres on the West side, roughly 140 acres are within the Lake Tahoe Basin.

In 2013, Mountainside Partners (then East West Partners) and SPI worked with environmental groups Sierra Watch and Mountain Area Preservation to arrange a deal — the Martis Valley Opportunity Agreement — that called for a shift in land use designations from the East side of Highway 267 to the West.

Per the deal, Mountainside Partners would make the East parcel available to conservation groups for permanent open space preservation, and the transfer of rights would allow for development to be proposed on the West parcel. This is how Martis Valley West was born.

The 2003 Martis Valley Community Plan, which designates what the land can be used for, currently has the East parcel zoned for development. The West parcel is zoned for timberland production.

Thus, Martis Valley West seeks approval to transfer 760 of the 1,360 residential units currently zoned for development within the East parcel to the West, while also permanently retiring the remaining 600 units from future development.

This is where things get complicated. Originally, 112 of those 760 residential units were proposed by Mountainside Partners to be built within the 150-acre section in the basin, on a ridgeline above Kings Beach.

As a result of harsh public concerns against in-basin development, Mountainside Partners in 2015 revised that plan in favor of the current Martis Valley West plan for 760 units West of Highway 267, but outside the basin.

However, when the idea of building ridgeline luxury homes in the basin wasn’t popular with the community, Mountainside Partners then proposed the 550-site Brockway Campground for the same piece of Lake Tahoe Basin land within the West parcel.

Herein lies the main concerns from Sierra Watch and Mountain Area Preservation, who argue that these combined projects far exceed what was agreed to in 2013.

According to Sierra Watch and Mountain Area Preservation, the original Martis Valley Opportunity foresaw designations for a potential maximum of 760 units for the property (i.e, the current Martis Valley West proposal) — not 760 homes plus 550 campsites.

Further, in terms of entitlements, Sierra Watch and Mountain Area Preservation contend that the Martis Valley Opportunity did not call for the granting of development rights, only for land-use transfers.

The two current proposals, however, do seek for development rights to be granted, according to those groups.

So, even though the Brockway Campground and Martis Valley West projects are separate proposals, conservation groups and residents are taking exception to both, considering they both border each other, with the campground portion being inside the basin.

Sierra Sun Managing Editor Kevin MacMillan contributed to this report.