Ownership of Zephyr Cove fire lookout tower in dispute | SierraSun.com

Ownership of Zephyr Cove fire lookout tower in dispute

Isaac Brambila
ibrambila@tahoedailytribune.com

The future location of a lookout tower in Zephyr Cove that is eligible to be placed in the National Register of Historic Places is on hold as the U.S. Forest Service and the landowner where the tower currently sits dispute its ownership.

The dispute stems from a struggle over the right location for the iconic tower, as U.S. Forest Service personnel attempt to relocate it approximately 11 miles away from its location at the top of Lookout Road in Zephyr Cove to the top of White Hill in the area of Spooner Summit.

That location, the U.S. Forest argues, will be in a "setting and feel" it was meant to be when it was originally built.

Countering those intentions, the owner of the piece of land where the tower currently sits, Eugene Canepa, argues that Zephyr Cove is the tower's home, and accuses the U.S. Forrest Service of discontinuing use of the building, failing to maintain the structure and letting it deteriorate.

Grounds for dispute stem from an easement sold for $1 in 1932 by Zephyr Cove Properties Inc., the owner at that time, to the U.S. government.

According to the Zephyr Point Fire Lookout Relocation Environmental Assessment done by the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, the U.S. Forest Service built the tower that same year.

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The contract was made for an "easement and right of way for a lookout building site" and a road leading to the location.

The right of way was granted for "the maintenance and full, free and quiet enjoyment by the United States of America of a road and a lookout building."

It further states that the grant "shall be effective so long as said easement shall be actually used for the purposes above specified and all rights hereunder shall revert to the owner of the land as soon as said use thereof shall be abandoned and discontinued."

Much of the dispute revolves around whether the U.S. Forest Service and other government agencies working under the umbrella of the U.S. have used the tower for the purposes specified in the contract.

In 1981, a Nevada judge ruled that Zephyr Cove Properties were fee simple owners of the property subject to the easement. Fee simple ownership generally grants full ownership and rights over land to the grantee.

"When they made that decision it was fee simple, but it was never clear as to the structure being part of it," Canepa said.

"In 1994 the tower was almost ready to fall down. The windows were broken out of it and the kids were swinging from it … and there was no paint on it," he added. "It was ready to come down."

Canepa, who moved across the street from the tower in 1994, bought the roughly quarter-of-an-acre piece of land in 2006.

Following the purchase, he said he spent nearly $50,000 restoring the tower. He connected water, sewer and electric lines and painted the tower, he said. He also said he added landscape in the area and built stone stairs and walls leading up to the tower.

"They've never used it. I've been here 22 years and they've never used it," Canepa said. "Why are we having these battles? This is a beautiful old building. This is its home and I am willing to maintain it.

"If you believe in historic things, the Louvre belongs where the Louvre is, the Eiffel Tower belongs where the Eiffel Tower is, and I just think this thing belongs here."

USFS Public Affairs Officer Cheva Gabor said the safe usage of the tower outweighs the interest of keeping it in its original site.

"The area is a very congested neighborhood not conducive to public visitation," Gabor said.

Gabor said she could not provide detailed comments on the topic because of pending legal litigation regarding the issue, but referred back to the Environmental Assessment, particularly where it states, "no extensive interpretation or promotion of the site is planned as part of this project."

She also stressed a section where the report stated that fire crews used the lookout during and after thunderstorms to detect wildland fires produced by lightning between 2001 and 2012.

The assessment further states that "the ability of crews to utilize the lookout has deteriorated in the last few years due to the encroachment of infrastructure and the accumulation of the private property owner's personal property."

Canepa said that advances in technology have reduced the usefulness of the tower for fire-detecting purposes.

He also said that the stairs he built leading to the tower, an area that is not gated, allow for people to visit the tower.

Despite the struggle, Canepa said he is not absolutely opposed to the idea of moving the tower, but an understanding for the future of the tower would have to be reached.

"If they would ensure to me, in my heart of hearts, they're going to take this down and really put it up somewhere else and not destroy it and throw it down and let it rot the way I found it, I would be amicable to even contributing money and helping them. But I don't trust them," he said.