Struggle on the summit
The momentum to save Donner Summit from proposed development has been growing rapidly since the new owners of Royal Gorge unveiled their conceptual plans in March for a project that would more than double the size of the existing community. Every day we learn more about the values at stake at Donner Summit, and every day I talk to more people who want to protect it from development, said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch, a Nevada City-based conservation group. Royal Gorge owners Kirk Syme and Todd Foster call the proposed residential project a conservation community that would serve as a gateway to the outdoors, enhance wilderness education and offer recreational opportunities.Development of Royal Gorge has been a topic of pointed discussion for Donner Summit residents since Syme and Foster purchased the resort more than a year ago. The new owners plan to develop portions of the 2,900 acres of land surrounding the resort.The conceptual plan represents the addition of 950 residential units to Royal Gorge, with plans to build four camps in clustered development, with each camp assigned a different theme. Ski Camp, which is assigned the highest density on the conceptual map, will serve as the base camp for outdoor activities. The developers are considering three- and four-story residential condominiums, cabins and home sites ranging from a quarter-acre to two acres for the area east of Serene Lakes. Also in the plan is a nature exploration center and a health center.The plans dont impress some residents of the mountain community. Homeowner Al LeBel said the 800 homes in Serene Lakes were built over a 40-year period, but the proposed expansion would more than double the number of residences in just a few years. Although the developers said in March they hoped to have the project approved by June, Royal Gorge project manager Mike Livak said this week he doesnt anticipate approval for some time.Foster, meanwhile, emphasized in a release earlier this week that he and his partner havent finalized any plans.We think whats most important is to work with the residents of Donner Summit as well as interested stakeholder groups on the concerns that have been expressed, Foster said. We made a commitment to seek public input very early on. We have learned a lot about peoples opinions, and yet we have not yet submitted a development application to Placer County for consideration.Royal Gorge has sought a pre-development meeting with the Placer County Planning office, but has not filed a formal application, said Crystal Jacobsen, a supervising planner. Livak said developers will meet with Placer County planners June 5 for a pre-application discussion.
A group of area residents who object to the project created the Web site http://www.savedonnersummit.com to organize opposition. The group has produced Save Donner Summit bumper stickers, and several homeowners have displayed similar banners in their front yards. Opponents have also produced two videos about the Serene Lakes controversy and posted them on the YouTube Web site, Mooers said. Residents who oppose Ski Camp say the project will have negative impacts on the secluded community. Cliff Busby, a board member of the Serene Lakes Property Owners Association and chairperson of the groups development committee, said the proposed condominiums at Ski Camp likely to be designated as timeshare units would especially increase the number of people in the area during the shoulder season. Busby said Ski Camp would also negatively affect water quality. A number of small streams flow from Razorback Ridge, the proposed site of two ski lifts that would connect to Sugar Bowl ski resort, into the areas water supply, Busby said. The property owners association met late last month to discuss the plans and review the results of a survey the group recently sponsored to assess how residents feel about the future of the Summit. Close to 100 residents were surveyed. Of those, just two favored the proposed development, while the majority opposed the Royal Gorge plans, said Jack Schwartz, the associations administrative assistant. Schwartz said many homeowners expressed concerns over increased traffic and strongly opposed the planned ski lift connecting Serene Lakes to Sugar Bowl.In an e-mail, Jason Rainey, executive director of the South Yuba River Citizens League, called the Royal Gorge proposal a conservation calamity. While the developers have withdrawn a building application to develop portions of Van Norden Meadow, Rainey said the Royal Gorge plan to create two reservoirs pose potential water quality problems, since at least one would capture water from a seasonal tributary of the South Yuba River. The upper South Yuba River enters Pacific Gas & Electrics Spaulding Reservoir, where the water is then sold for consumption to Nevada and Placer County residents, Rainey said in the e-mail.
At the end of the association meeting, homeowners donated nearly $12,000 to hire environmental consultants and attorneys to represent the group, and more than 200 residents volunteered to help with the campaign, Busby said. One resident vowed to match whatever funds were collected at the April 28 meeting, he added.Sierra Watch and the Sierra Club have joined forces and hired Schute, Mihaly and Weinberger the same law firm that represented Sierra Watch in a lawsuit over development in Martis Valley for their expertise in land-use planning, said David Kean of the Tahoe Area Sierra Club. Schute, Mihaly, and Weinberger is a high-powered San Francisco firm that Sierra Watch considers its last line of defense in stopping a development project the group deems inappropriate.The Sierra Club has hired other environmental consultants to examine the plans and develop a land-use map, Kean said. The Sierra Club would rather reach an agreement on the future of the Summit than spend several years and millions of dollars on litigation, he added. It will be a goal of the Sierra Club that the habitat is maintained at Royal Gorge and as little damage occurs as possible, Kean said.After initial meetings in March, some local residents began to compare the Syme-Foster proposal to development at other area ski resorts, Mooers said. The Village at Squaw Valley and the Village at Northstar both have under 300 condominium units.Sierra Watch is evaluating whats at stake and what it would take to maintain the Summit community, Mooers said.Were really looking at all of Donner Summit to see if this kind of development fits there, Mooers said. We havent seen any evidence that it does.In the meantime, Summit residents are working to keep abreast of whats going on and have their questions answered, Schwartz said. And they have a lot of questions. When Foster and Syme first identified Royal Gorge as a valuable property to develop, they may have thought no one would be bothered, Busby said. Thats no longer the case. I think they know that were bothered, Busby said.
Royal Gorge developers went through a lengthy process of property research and soliciting public comment regarding the future of the Summit community. The peer review report of the environmental impacts was released Thursday, said the Sierra Clubs Kean. He would not disclose details from the report, but contended that the biological studies the developers conducted were not robust enough, and failed to consider long-term biological planning. The Conservation Biology Institute was selected as the third-party reviewer of the Royal Gorge environmental study, the same consulting firm that reviewed the environmental impact report for the Martis Valley Community Plan. The Sierra Club is joined by the Mountain Area Preservation Foundation and the Sierra Business Council in the effort to review Royal Gorges environmental reports on the lands existing biological resources. The Donner Summit Area Association, the Serene Lakes Property Owners Association and the North Fork American River Alliance have also been involved in the review process.
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