Keeping watch over the Sierra
Tom Mooers has chosen his battles carefully.
From Tahoe to Mount Whitney to Lassen, each of Sierra Watch’s clashes against development have featured an iconic Sierra Nevada backdrop.
It was in the bucolic Martis Valley that Sierra Watch, the Nevada City-based conservation group that Mooers heads, cut its teeth. And it was a victorious Martis Valley lawsuit that has launched the conservation group, with a head full of steam, to battle development proposals in the far reaches of the Sierra Nevada.
“Success in the Martis Valley is very important to the rest of the Sierra,” Mooers said. “We hear a lot from people in towns throughout the Sierra who are encouraged and inspired by what is happening in the Martis Valley.”
Formed in 2000 by a group that included Northstar and Truckee residents, Sierra Watch plunged single-mindedly into the political process of the Martis Valley Community Plan. A victory last May in the lawsuit they filed against Placer County’s plan that allowed for 6,000 new homes in the valley led to two conservation agreements with Martis developers. Those accords set land and conservation money aside in exchange for an exemption from the lawsuit’s building ban for developers Martis Valley Associates and East West Partners.
Mooers said he sees these agreements as closure in the debate over what should and what shouldn’t be developed in the 45,000-acre cradle between Truckee and North Tahoe.
“There was nothing to prevent in two years or in five years more development than was called for in the Martis Valley Community Plan,” Mooers said.
But with conservation easements that extend into perpetuity, and with money Sierra Watch hopes to put toward permanently protecting large chunks of Martis Valley, “We’re achieving certainty,” he said.
Success in Martis Valley has freed Sierra Watch to begin expanding operations across the Sierra Nevada.
The two spots the organization chose were the southern tip of Lassen County and the base of the Sierra Nevada’s highest peak.
In Lassen, Sierra Watch gave a hand to the Mountain Meadows Conservancy, a group that was fighting a resort development planning to add more than 4,000 homes, two golf courses and a ski resort to Westwood, Calif., population 2,000.
“We are a community-based organization, so something like this is completely beyond our reach,” Steve Robinson, executive director of the Mountain Meadows Conservancy, said of the resort proposal named Dyer Mountain. “Sierra Watch was very helpful in bringing us up to speed.”
The fact that Sierra Watch compromised on development proposals in the Martis Valley that allowed for some building and some conservation was impressive, Robinson said.
“They’re not just out there looking to sue people,” he said. “They are looking for reasonable solutions.”
Sierra Watch also mobilized to stop a 27-home subdivision from springing up in the sagebrush at the base of Mount Whitney. The project, although small, would have been highly visible and would have set a precedent for development in the area, Mooers said.
In all three conservation efforts, Sierra Watch has executed a highly effective strategy. First, the group framed the debate, often setting off the development proposals against the dramatic Sierra backdrops that people from across the country have grown to cherish.
The warning cry of a proposed subdivision at the base of the Lower 48’s highest mountain and proposals for thousands of opulent homes in gated, golf course communities just minutes from the shores of Lake Tahoe got the interest of the national press. Newspapers like The Wall Street Journal, the L.A. Times and the San Francisco Chronicle began telling the tales of Sierra development disputes.
“The three things that have attracted attention to the Martis Valley is the ridiculous scale of [development], Lake Tahoe … and that people were doing something about it,” Mooers said.
When all comments and talks of compromise fail, Sierra Watch’s ace in the hole is a law firm recognized by some as the best environmental litigators in the state. Shute, Mihaly and Weinberger, which also works for groups such as the Sierra Club, is a high-powered San Francisco firm that is often the last line of defense in stopping a development project that Sierra Watch deems irresponsible.
“The tool that is clearly needed [in the Sierra] is legal expertise to hold elected officials accountable to their own laws,” Mooers said.
But after a lawsuit, even a successful one, the work doesn’t stop.
“A victory in a lawsuit has never been our goal,” Mooers said.
Then the true and lasting work for permanent conservation ” whether it be conservation easements or development compromises ” begins.
Phil Carville, a Nevada County developer who owned 700-plus acres that is now the gated Lahontan subdivision in the 1980s, said that the compromises between community organizations and developers can yield greatly improved projects. New ideas that break from traditional mindset of suburban housing or gated communities, often generated through the collaboration of conservation groups, are often a positive turn for development, Carville said.
“I think that’s why we have so much bad development around,” he said, “because so many people have become so successful with one model.”
Development decisions, he noted, are not to be taken lightly.
“The Martis Valley is so beautiful and once you develop it … it’s irreversible,” Carville said.
Mooers, 36, describes himself as a “land-use zealot.”
“If you take any problem in the world, I can trace it back to a bad land use decision,” he said.
An Oakland native, Mooers spent years working for the League to Save Lake Tahoe and the Greenbelt Alliance before coming to Sierra Watch in 2001.
But the fight to save Martis Valley from a string of gated, golf course communities filled with second or third homes for the rich had a personal edge to it for Mooers.
His great-grandparents owned a cabin in Kings Beach, and as a child he remembers pulling trout from Martis Creek Reservoir.
“I definitely feel a personal connection to the land,” Mooers said.
Sierra Watch will soon hire a lawyer, boosting Mooers’ staff, which consists of him alone, to two.
But with other areas like the Sierra Valley becoming targets of Sierra Watch’s attention, there will be enough work in the Nevada City offices to go around, Mooers said.
“There is no duplicate of Sierra Watch in the Sierra,” Mooers said. “That is why our phone is ringing off of the hook.”