Agencies wrangling over North Tahoe’s Firestone property | SierraSun.com

Agencies wrangling over North Tahoe’s Firestone property

Margaret Moran
mmoran@sierrasun.com

TAHOE CITY, Calif. — Varying interests in an 85-acre piece of land at the top of Dollar Hill could hold up completion of a long-awaited bike trail that would eventually connect Tahoe City to Kings Beach.

Since 1990, the North Tahoe Public Utility District has owned the Firestone property, which sits between the Old County and Highlands neighborhoods just east of Tahoe City.

Yet in August, Placer County asked to take over ownership. When asked why, Peter Kraatz, deputy director of the county's Public Works department, said there's a perception the PUD is no longer interested in operation and maintenance of the proposed Dollar Creek Shared-Use Trail, which is planned to run through the property.

"(The) county is not in a position to operate and maintain the trail without owning (the) property," he said. "The grant agreement for the property purchase restricts this delineation of … responsibilities."

A third agency at play regarding the Firestone property is the California Tahoe Conservancy, which in 1988 awarded a $1.186 million grant to the NTPUD that allowed the district to purchase it and other properties for recreation purposes.

THE COUNTY'S STAKE

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Originally, Placer County requested easements to enable trail construction through the property, according to the NTPUD.

According to the minutes of its Aug. 12 board meeting, president Lane Lewis stated that it was the consensus of the board to grant the easements — but not acquisition of the property to the county.

If the county was to gain ownership of the Firestone property, Kraatz said there is no firm plan to build anything on it other than the bike trail.

However, there has been a long-term effort to find a new location for the Placer County Sheriff's Office substation and court facility at Burton Creek, something NTPUD General Manager and CEO Paul Schulz spoke about in a Monday interview.

"We were quite surprised, especially when we found out that (Placer County's) thinly veiled reason (to obtain the Firestone property) is that they want to put a justice center up there," Schultz said. "… We're not against the jail. We understand that the justice center is very necessary. We just don't believe it belongs on that property. That property was purchased for recreational purposes."

Over the years, the Burton Creek facility in Tahoe City has been cited with multiple shortcomings, causing Placer County grand juries for roughly 20 years to recommend its replacement.

A POOR CHOICE?

Kraatz said the county is looking at the Firestone property and others for potential relocation of the justice center and a corporate yard, but where those facilities will end up is unknown.

Residents within the Highlands Homeowners Association are against a justice center at Firestone, said Ray Garland, president of the association located just west of the property.

"We think Dollar Hill is a poor choice for the county's facilities … (because of potential) traffic, noise and going against the mission of the Conservancy of protecting the environment and providing open space," he said.

The association would like the PUD to retain ownership, and a deed restriction put in place that would prevent future development, said Garland.

CONSERVANCY STEPPING IN

Meanwhile, the California Tahoe Conservancy is seeking to recover the Firestone property.

"The Conservancy's grant was conditioned upon 'a commitment by NTPUD … to undertake the (trail) project and to manage and maintain the property in a manner consistent with the purposes and scope of the grant,'" stated Patrick Wright, executive director of the Conservancy, in a Sept. 30 letter to Schultz.

Due to lack of the PUD's recent progress on the project, the Conservancy has concluded the district is no longer committed to the project or fulfilling the conditions of the grant, Wright wrote.

Schultz disagrees, saying that since the trail was first presented to the Conservancy board in 1987 for conceptional review, the PUD has acquired and maintained the Firestone property; done planning studies and design for a proposed trail; and started environmental documentation.

"If the Conservancy can prove their case that we're not doing our job, they're certainly justified in taking it back, but I don't think they can prove that because we have been working with them," he said. "We have done everything that is in our agreements."

According to the PUD, a snag occurred in April 2009 when the U.S. Forest Service required several reports not included in the environmental consultant's scope of service. As a result, an additional $65,000 was sought — on a contract of $858,000.

At the time, neither the PUD nor the Conservancy had the funds to cover the special reports.

'THAT IS NOT THE CASE'

According to the minutes of the May 11, 2010, NTPUD meeting, the board unanimously authorized the CEO to turn the task of obtaining environmental documents back to the Conservancy.

Yet, the board at that time reaffirmed the district's interest in supervising construction and operating the bike trail — if the environmental and funding hurdles were overcome.

"Over the past four years, that seems to have been reinterpreted as the district does not want to do the project anymore, and that is not the case," Schultz said.

Since, Placer County has taken over the environmental documentation task; final documents on the project were released in August 2012.

A National Environmental Policy Act document should be done this year, Kraatz said, which is required since the trail was granted federal funding.

Another issue is, according to Wright, the county may lose $3.4 million in federal funds if the trail is delayed beyond 2014.

To avoid that, the Conservancy is encouraging the PUD and the county work together and develop an agreement that complies with the grant conditions, Wright said Monday.

"Our interest is getting the trail built, not in determining who owns it," he said. "… We're hopeful that they can work out a deal. Any action we would take would be a last resort."

Next steps

At Tuesday's NTPUD meeting, the board of directors directed Schultz and one board member to meet with the county in an effort to resolve the matter and bring information from that meeting back to the board for its Nov. 11 meeting.

After that, a public meeting will be held, the date of which is unknown, Schultz said.

In the meantime, the public can submit comments about the Firestone property and the trail to ntpud@ntpud.org, he said.

Comments will be forwarded to the appropriate party and/or used by the PUD board in making a decision on the Firestone property.

"We're not fighting our community," Schultz said. "We love our community. We want to do what the people in this community want."

Kraatz said he is "optimistic" the county and PUD can work out an agreement in the weeks to come.

If so, a construction bid for a 2.4-mile portion of the 8-mile trail — which would extend from Dollar Hill through the Firestone Property to Fulton Crescent Drive — could go out in spring 2015, Kraatz said.

The entire Dollar Creek Shared-Use Trail Project is defined as the westernmost end of the North Tahoe Bike Trail corridor identified by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency to link Tahoe City to Kings Beach.

"I think everybody on the board feels that the bike trail is an outstanding recreational amenity that we want to see accomplished," Lewis said.

Click here to learn more about the project.