Squaw-Alpine gondola: Months of work needed for initial project review
January 4, 2016
OLYMPIC VALLEY, Calif. — The initial project application for the proposed base-to-base gondola that would connect Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows is now available online.
Filed Oct. 15, the application outlines an aerial ropeway system to connect the neighboring resorts through the use of two base stations — one at Squaw and another at Alpine — two mid-point stations and 37 towers.
"The gondola is intended to provide a connection between the two ski areas … so that skiers can take advantage of the offerings at both resorts without traveling by vehicle between the two areas," the application states.
The proposal is for an eight-passenger gondola with a design capacity of roughly 1,400 people per hour in both directions, according to the nine-page document Placer County posted online Dec. 9.
Based on a survey conducted by LSC Transportation Consultants, Inc. and other data, it's estimated the gondola would reduce traffic by 100 vehicles daily along Highway 89 between Squaw and Alpine and on Squaw Valley Road, the application states.
The gondola would only operate during the winter season, running shortly before regular lifts open and shortly after they close to enable skiers and riders to return to the resort they started.
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It's estimated the project would disturb approximately 3.5 acres among the base terminals, mid-stations and tower footings. The project also includes the installation of eight Gazex exploders for avalanche control.
" … Extensive effort has been put into the design of the lift to ensure that its location would be as far away from the (Granite Chief) Wilderness boundary as possible and that no portion of the proposed project would directly affect the wilderness area," the application states.
However, the project would cross National Forest System Lands and private property owned or leased by Squaw Valley Ski Holdings.
A coordinated environmental review
The gondola project is under separate review by Placer County and the U.S. Forest Service.
Placer County's environmental review will include a Focused EIR, which evaluates environmental issues relevant to the project, according to the county's planning services staff.
In mid-December, the county and Squaw Valley Ski Holdings signed a contract with environmental planning and consulting firm Ascent Environmental that breaks down the process into three phases.
The first phase consists of the Notice of Preparation — targeted to be released in late winter/early spring 2016 — to be followed by preparation of the draft EIR (Phase II) and the final EIR (Phase III).
Work by Ascent for Phase I is estimated to cost $85,360, according to Placer County. Cost for Phase II and III is unknown at this time, as scope of work has yet to be determined.
As the project applicant, Squaw Valley Ski Holdings will be responsible for all expenses related to the California Environmental Quality Act review process, including EIR preparation.
A Focused EIR could take 12 to 18 months to complete, according to county planning staff; a more definitive timeframe will be determined in coming months.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service will conduct its own environmental review through the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement by the SE Group, a Frisco, Colo.-based planning firm that recently worked at Lake Tahoe with Diamond Peak Ski Resort to update its master plan.
Similar to the CEQA process, Squaw Valley Ski Holdings will pay for the National Environmental Policy Act review process, including preparation of the EIS.
The Forest Service estimates its staff time and oversight for the review process will cost $110,113.78, said Joe Flannery, winter sports specialist for the U.S. Forest Service.
This estimate does not include the cost to prepare the EIS or the forest supervisor's time to review the final environmental document, as details relating to the study are still being determined.
A notice of intent by the U.S. Forest Service is likely to be released in spring 2016, Flannery said.
The entire EIS process — from the notice of intent to a decision being made by the forest supervisor — could take roughly 24 months, he said. Yet, with the review process being in its early stages, that timeframe is subject to change.
"Although these will be separate environmental documents, Placer County and the USFS are working in a highly coordinated manner to (ensure) consistency between the environmental review and documents," said Placer County's Planning Services staff.
In spring 2015, Squaw Valley Ski Holdings announced it reached an agreement with Troy Caldwell, owner of the private "White Wolf" property located between Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, making the gondola project possible.
"Connecting Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows is something skiers and snowboarders both who live here and who visit have dreamed of for decades," Andy Wirth, president and CEO of Squaw Valley Ski Holdings, said in an earlier statement. "We are excited to have reached a new milestone in the effort to bring that dream to fruition, and are moving forward with plans to provide our guests with a seamless way to experience both of these incredible mountains."
Initial reaction to the announcement was mixed, with some in favor of the connection due to accessibility, and others unsure or against due to potential environmental impacts.
At the time of the announcement, a project plan outlining specifics had yet to be developed.
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