The Last Resort " What does the future look like for Lake Tahoe’s Homewood Mountain Resort
Three gray-haired skiers slide effortlessly down a lift ramp, the wind grabbing at their hats.
“That lift is so fast,” jokes one member of the trio, “it blew my hat off.”
“That lift” is the Old Homewood Express installed last autumn to the tune of $4 million, part of the many amenities planned by Homewood Mountain Resort’s new owners, JMA Ventures.
Like the speed of the new lift, the proposed changes to Homewood resort are lining up rapidly for the 45-year-old West Shore ski hill. And depending on where one stands, those changes are either good or bad.
The hatless skier is one of three San Jose college professors making turns on a remarkably un-crowded weekday in mid-January at Homewood.
Walter Soellner, 66, who has skied the mountain for decades, says he always returns for the stunning panoramic view that Homewood provides. The new lift that cut a nearly 20 minute ride down to 5 is a nice upgrade, he says with a smile.
But Soellner and his professor buddies wonder what the impending development plan will mean to their quaint ski hill, where on any given weekday morning there are perhaps 30 cars in the parking lot and plenty of room on the slopes.
“I’m sure it is good for the owner,” Soellner says. “This is selfish, but I’d like to keep it the best kept secret.”
But selfish is the very word that some West Shore residents with families would label that thought process.
“We want to tell the world about this area,” says Rob Weston, a West Shore business owner.
“Where else do you have two marinas and a ski mountain,” says real estate agent Mike Oliver.
Now Homewood, the town and the mountain, faces a dilemma that’s washed over Truckee and the North Shore over the past 10 years ” change, hold on to the past or manage growth.
“Anybody has to be naive to think that things are going to stay the same in Homewood as they were in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s,” says Sarah Obexer, who now leads one of Homewood’s oldest families and businesses, Obexer’s Marina.
“Homewood as it is not a viable ski area,” says Ralph Silverman, a Chris-Craft boat dealer who started working on the docks of West Shore marinas in 1986.
Silverman started a business based in Homewood five years later and has never left. He now has a young family. He says it is selfish for people not to think about the limits a rural lifestyle puts on families.
He said the swimming pool, the ice-skating and other amenities that JMA Ventures is proposing are all recreational opportunities that West Shore families currently have to travel to Truckee or other ski resorts for.
JMA President and Truckee resident Art Chapman confirmed Silverman’s view.
“Homewood has been troubled economically for years. One of the problems is that you can have 3,000 on a weekend and 200 on a weekday. You can’t run a business like that,” says Chapman, who likes to say JMA is not a development firm, but a company that restores historically significant areas to their former grandeur, as it did with Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco.
So for some on the West Shore, the familiar storyline ” small-time locals battling Goliath developer ” is turned upside down.
But the Us vs. Them theme has plenty of people on the “us” side of the equation.
“A lot of resorts seem to be trying to develop beyond recreation,” says Sawyer Kozart, a 26-year-old ski industry worker. “And that’s where the Homewood development doesn’t seem to fit the role this mountain plays in the Basin”
Homewood’s role is a recreation ” not real estate ” destination, Kozart says, “A low key family mountain.”
By all accounts, JMA will not take the family out of the resort, but perhaps the low-key. Many outspoken critics have touted the film documentary “Resorting to Madness” produced by two Tahoe locals, as evidence that a ski village, like the ones created by Boothcreek at Northstar and Intrawest at Squaw Valley, creates an artificial community, an empty shell beholden to the commercial interests of the owners of the resort and occupied by second homeowners while the service workers and full-time community member live elsewhere.
“One of the things that I detest about this resort is that somehow that having a destination resort cuts down the traffic and certainly Northstar, Squaw and Alpine have shown us that that does not work,” says Susan Gearhart, a second homeowner in Homewood who also resides in Fremont.
She cited anecdotal experience of increased traffic through the Highway 267 corridor and along Highway 89 between Truckee and Tahoe City because of larger ski resorts there.
“The proposals they have will not offset what they propose,” Gearhart says.
Rick Brown, JMA Sierra Ventures vice president, says he has seen the movie and thinks the Homewood Mountain Resort project is the exception.
“The movie [portrays] really the opposite of where we are heading with this project. It will be lower profile [and] smaller scale,” he says.
“This is to serve the local West Shore community and our guests,” Chapman says. “We don’t want to bring people in north of the Wye.”
While worries of the traffic that potentially 1,000 extra residents and visitors could bring, some opponents say there may be room for compromise.
“I’m certainly not against the development, it just needs to be downsized,” says Judy Tornese, a McKinney Estate resident who splits her time in Tahoe and San Francisco.
“I [do] think the Homewood Mountain Resort needs to be upgraded, [but] the project currently proposed should be downsized,” she says.
Currently, during peak tourist times, traffic can be backed up two miles down the West Shore from Tahoe City. Tornese says that with 1,000 more bodies it will stretch down to Tahoma.
“It’s all one road. It’s all connected,” she says. “What comes around goes around.”
Chapman argues against the logic of more people more cars, and says that establishing a “bed base” where people stay multiple days and implementing free shuttles for guests and community residents should reduce traffic.
His detractors ” and perhaps supporters ” are not convinced.
Obexer says she has concerns about increased traffic flow through the small town as well. She also empathizes with what some businesses may see as competition for beds and meals. But, she says it would be nice to have a place to meet friends and bring her young children that was close by.
“I hope this project well,” she says looking out of her second-story office window. “I now view it as a positive, because Homewood has tumble weeds blowing through it.”
Gearhart, meanwhile, does not see a park for the kids or JMA’s vision of Old Tahoe style, but a city in the mountains.
“It is like development node in an rural area,” she says. “This is where we go to breathe fresh air. This is where we go with our children, it is [where] they get their values.”
JMA’s Brown sees it differently.
“It’s going to bring life back to a community that used to have life ” it will enhance the community feel of this section we call Homewood.”
Homewood could be called an organically grown ski village; small businesses sprang up as demand warranted during different building booms, Brown said, at one point there was a barber and gift shop a beauty salon and a clothing store located in the area.
The commercial strip of Homewood is now spread out along the sleepy ribbon of two-lane state highway, and a driver might miss it if they were in a serious cell phone conversation.
A breakfast cafe, pizza joint, deli, post office and other small businesses dot the rural route.
The newest building is a six-room lodge and restaurant called the West Shore Cafe and Inn, a renovation that withstood tough opposition by many residents while it was being built a few years ago.
The unincorporated neighborhood of Homewood holds about 130 residential parcels, according to Jack McKenna, president of the Homewood Homeowners association. The official territory, he said, stretches from Cherry Street in the north to Ski Bowl Way in the south. The subdivision is 100 years old and was largely created as second homes for Sacramento families, he said.
According to 2000 Census documents, not aligned with the association’s strict boundaries, the neighborhood holds about 369 year round residences and 1,027 vacant or second homes. Only 94 of the year-round residences are rentals.
Whether the population figures include the neighboring villages or not, part-time locals outnumber the full-time locals.
Annie and Arthur Jost built the original Hotel Homewood in 1910.
A Woodland, California man, Don Huff and his wife Bernice, bought the Homewood Resort in 1938. The property included a hotel on the lake side, at the site of today’s West Shore Cafe and Inn, and included a few acres across the highway.
Skiing at Homewood Resort started with a single rope tow developed by innovator Ron Rupp in 1962, according to JMA Sierra Ventures Vice President Rick Brown.
“He [Rupp] was the one who really started Homewood Mountain Resort,” said Brown, Huff’s grandson.
Back then, Brown said there was a three-story hotel on the lake with an additional 18 cottages next to it. Also on the mountain side, the family rented tent cabins for $3 a night.
Brown said Helen Aldrich bought the resort from the Huff’s in 1964, with plans to build condominiums on the mountain, near present day Old Homewood Express ski lift, and an ice rink over a proposed covered parking lot. Aldrich’s plans were stopped by a moratorium on building, said Brown, from the newly formed California Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.
The lake-side property was eventually sold to the Topol family, which still owns it today, and the mountain-side changed owners about three times, according to Brown until JMA bought it in 2006.
North side of the resort: Boutique hotel with 40-50 traditional rooms, 42 condotel rooms, 30 penthouse units (wholly owned).
South side (Ski Bowl Way): 120 condominium units, 11 single family homes.
Environmental: Reforestation of portions of the mountain, collection and treatment of storm water runoff, small hydro-power plants to create electricity, bio-mass facility, negotiating sale of Quail Lake to the U.S. Forest Service to help with watershed restoration. Skier numbers will be capped daily around 3,300 people to reduce traffic.
Fire suppression: Generators hooked to snowmaking equipment in the summer for fire protection.
Amenities: 15-person snowcat carrying passengers from south side to north side, Dial a ride for west shore residents and guests, mid-mountain restaurant, swimming pool, ice skating, an ice cream shop, hardware store and a market. A permanent amphitheater to host the annual Lake Tahoe Music Festival.
Status: The Homewood project has not and will not be approved for at least a year, said TRPA spokesperson Julie Regan. The project will most likely be given the green light to proceed with planning efforts during the board’s February meeting. Regan said this means they still must “go through an extensive environmental review.”
“We want to make sure that whatever happens is in keeping the character of the Homewood/Tahoma community,” she said.
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