Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows and Sierra Watch lock horns over leases
The proposed Base-to-Base Gondola at Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows has drawn the ire of several conservation groups, who contend details about key land leases were left out of environmental review documents.
As a result, Sierra Watch and other conservation groups have written letters to Placer County and Tahoe National Forest demanding the documents be republished with details of those leases in order to give the public a chance to weigh in on that aspect of the proposal.
The groups say Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows didn’t disclose it had secured lease agreements with a private land owner in the area, Troy Caldwell, during the environmental review process for the project.
The proposed gondola would connect the base of Alpine Meadows with the base of Squaw Valley, and would be on land leased or owned by Squaw Valley Ski Holdings, according to the resort, including land owned by Caldwell, with whom Squaw Valley has arranged an agreement.
Sierra Watch said in a news release it only recently discovered the agreement between Alterra Mountain Company and private landowner Caldwell came in the form of nearly 300-year leases. Alterra is a conglomerate of ski resorts, owned by KSL Capital Partners and Henry Crown and Co., of which Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows is a member.
Squaw officials, however, said the existence of the long-term agreement has been made available to the public for several years now.
“The lease agreement has been in the public domain since 2015, during the same time that the resort announced its intent to connect the two mountains with a gondola,” said Ron Cohen, president and COO Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows in an email to the Sun.
“One must question the motive of bringing this up now, when it has been out there for years,” Cohen said. “This is nothing more than a transparent and legally meritless attempt to distract from and/or delay the thorough environmental review process that is taking place.”
Still, Sierra Watch and other conservation groups contend they were unaware of such agreements.
“To us, they weren’t forthcoming about the existence of the leases,” said Executive Director of Sierra Watch Tom Mooers. “We sat at negotiations for months with property owners, with representatives from KSL, and we got out maps and we talked about the details of the land. They never bothered to mention the existence of these leases … it does indicate they were really hiding something in what could have been a much more collaborative process.”
Moving ahead, Sierra Watch, along with the Sierra Club, the Friends of the West Shore, Wilderness Watch, and Granite Chief Wilderness Protection League, stated they’d like Placer County and the Tahoe National Forest to amend the analyses, and then republish them for public comment.
“You have to take this 1,000-page document that’s been circulated for comments and you have to start all over again, which is obviously an attempt to delay and drive up expenses,” Cohen said by phone. “They are trying to gain leverage.”
“From a legal standpoint, had we never disclosed the leases existed, then they still wouldn’t have a claim. CEQA requires analyses of the physical conditions of the property. Land ownership isn’t a physical condition of the property. You’re analyzing the project, not who owns the land … From a legal perspective, there’s just no basis to their argument. Even if the leases had been hidden it wouldn’t matter, but that’s not the case.”
Mooers said the information should have been a part of the environmental review.
“By not including information about these leases, which are as good as ownership because it’s a 300-year agreement, the public is left in the dark in terms of where things stand with the property itself,” he said.
Mooers said Sierra Watch and other conservation groups have yet to hear back from the forest service or Placer County on the status of their request to have the environmental review documents republished.
Squaw sent a letter to the county and forest service as well, according to Cohen, in response to the conservation groups’ claim.
“We sent a response letter to Placer County and the forest service that cited the case law that says that the land ownership is not an impact under CEQA that needs to be analyzed,” said Cohen. “The document is not required to analyze the status of the legal ownership. It’s there to analyze environmental impacts of the potential gondola.”
Ownership of land, according to Placer County Deputy Director of Communications and Public Affairs Chris Gray-Garcia, isn’t something normally looked at under the California Environmental Quality Act.
“Lease agreements between private parties such as the one between Squaw and Mr. Caldwell do not normally result in an environmental impact so they’re not something we usually look at under CEQA,” Gray-Garcia said in an email to the Sun.
Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.