Royal Gorge resort, 4,000 acres sold
A partnership of Bay Area developers has purchased Royal Gorge, North America’s largest cross country ski resort, and its 4,000-plus acres of land on Donner Summit.
While the group says it doesn’t intend to change the cross country resort, summit residents fear that thousands of acres will be open to residential development after sewer capacity is upgraded to allow for construction.
“We have no plans of really changing anything at this point,” said Todd Foster, a partner with Foster Enterprises, a 50 -year-old development company that built Foster City in the 1950s.
Foster, along with his cousin Mark Foster and Burlingame developer Kirk Syme, decided to keep former Royal Gorge owner John Slouber on to manage the cross country ski resort. The resort operates on more than 9,000 acres, about 5,000 acres of which are leased from the U.S. Forest Service.
Along with the resort and the land, the group also purchased Rainbow Lodge and have a contract to buy Ice Lakes Lodge, according to Foster. The purchase includes an artesian spring behind Rainbow Lodge that produces thousands of gallons of bottled drinking water each year.
“We plan on business as usual out there,” Foster said.
Martin Bern, president of the Serene Lakes Property Owners Association, said he is concerned. The Serene Lakes subdivision is surrounded by Foster’s newly acquired land, and Bern said he has a hunch that the partnership is looking to build.
“I suspect that they are looking at major development on the summit,” Bern said.
Other summit residents agree, although after years of rumors that Royal Gorge was selling, some were not shocked by the purchase.
“It does not come as a surprise to any of us,” said Jennifer Montgomery, who lives in Serene Lakes.
Montgomery said she has no doubt that the development group has plans to convert some of the cross country area to homes or condos.
“I’ve never seen a developer who has no plans for development,” she said.
If Foster Enterprises follows its traditional pattern with the Royal Gorge property, current Donner Summit residents could see more neighbors in the area.
The company, apart from a list of commercial and residential projects it has built in the Bay Area, has bought up hundreds of acres of land across Northern California, including an 180-acre ranch near Placerville that is planned for development, and 55 acres near Oroville that is scheduled for more than 160 homes.
“Development of residential is a possibility and then maybe it is not a possibility,” Todd Foster said of the summit property, in a response typical of his guarded answers to questions about the recent purchase.
Todd Foster, who has a home at Sugar Bowl, said his group bought the land because of its incredible beauty.
“I thought that it was a unique opportunity to own one of the most beautiful pieces of property you can find,” Todd Foster said.
Montgomery said that although she’s not opposed to development on the summit, she will be vigilant to make sure that if anything is built it would be sensitive to the environment.
“No one’s panicking at this point,” Montgomery said. “No one is against development. There is good development and there is bad development.”
Whatever comes of the Royal Gorge purchase, development will not overtake the summit anytime soon. The area’s sewer plant is functioning at its limit and has already slowed building to a crawl. Until the plant is expanded, construction on the summit is expected to be light for at least the next five years.
The last sewer permits available until the sewer plant expansion in 2010 have been reserved. But residents worry that in five, 10 or 15 years ” after a newly expanded plant comes on line ” the area will be primed for a surge of residential development.
Septic tanks, the alternative to waiting for a larger wastewater plant, could be analyzed as an alternative to regular sewer hookups if a specific development proposal came forward, said Melanie Heckel, assistant Placer County planning director.
Another hurdle, although not insurmountable, will be the zoning of the land purchased by the Foster group. Not all of the 4,000 acres is open for large scale development. Several large tracts of land are zoned for minimal density ” 80 acres per unit or 160 acres per unit, although the area immediately surrounding Serene Lakes would allow for a single family project and a multi-family project.
Other areas near Lake Van Norden have an ambiguous zoning of Forestry Development Reserve.
The recent purchase is mixed news for Serene Lakes property owners who have had a long and strained relationship with previous Royal Gorge owner John Slouber.
“I think that a lot of people think that Slouber was not a good neighbor, but he has been a passive neighbor as far as development,” Bern said.
Slouber, a former ski racer in the French Alps, built Royal Gorge from the ground up, beginning in 1971. With $3,000 in his pocket, Slouber convinced some Southern California real estate investors to go in on the idea ” a venture unheard of in the early 1970s.
The resort grew to become North America’s largest cross-country area, starting off an era of cross country ski resorts.
“I started the cross country ski resort business,” Slouber said. “There wasn’t a cross country ski resort before Royal Gorge.”
The decision to sell the resort, 35 years after he started it, was hard, said Slouber, but the time was right.
“There comes a time when you reach the zenith of the value of your business,” he said. “It is not an easy decision on my part being the creator of the thing.”