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Water district to discuss avalanche issue

Staff Reports

A small district will decide Monday whether to jump into the large problem of avalanche control on Alpine Meadows Road.

Because the Alpine Springs County Water District owns greenbelt property that can produce avalanches during the winter, the district’s board of directors will decide whether it needs to pursue some type of avalanche control.

The board plans to discuss the issue during its regular monthly meeting at 8:30 a.m. Monday at the Alpine Springs County Water District office.

“We’ve been tossing this around for about a year and a half,” said board member Lin Winetrub.

The water district’s primary function is to provide water, sewer and fire service to 600 customers in Alpine Meadows. It also owns a public park in the valley.

However, avalanche control has found its way onto the district’s plate of issues because it owns property above Alpine Meadows Road.

Current method

The avalanche hazard along Alpine Meadows Road is controlled by Placer County, which contracts with Alpine Meadows Ski Area to keep the road clear of avalanche hazards.

The ski area will temporarily close the road and blast the unstable slopes in order to bring down dangerous snowpacks.

Consequences

Whether this is the best method of avalanche control became an issue after a homeowner’s insurance company sued the county, the water district and the ski area because an avalanche set off during routine avalanche control for the road damaged a private home. There are about 12 private homes that are within potential avalanche paths, with several having been hit by avalanches in the past.

That lawsuit two years ago brought the issue of liability to the forefront in the midst of several heavy winters and triggered a debate over the future of avalanche control in Alpine Meadows.

“The community owns that land and the slides on it could create danger. We want to do everything in our power to keep the community safe,” said Winetrub.

Another option

The Alpine Springs County Water District has investigated a fencing system that would line the slope above the road and prevent avalanches from coming down on the road. About 50 people attended a public meeting in August where the district presented the fencing option to its constituents. It also suggested that a snow shed could be built on another portion of the road to protect from avalanches coming from property owned by Troy Caldwell.

Mixed reviews

Some at the meeting were opposed to the fencing, while others were in favor.

“There were concerns and the concerns were: who’s going to pay for it and how is it going to look,” said board member Janet Grant. “I would guess for the safety of the community it’s worth looking into.”

Homeowner Gail Condren wrote a letter after the meeting saying that it is inappropriate for the Alpine Springs County Water District to get involved in avalanche fencing “to appease 12 homeowners who bought or built in a high avalanche area.”

Winetrub and three other board members are in favor of studying the avalanche fencing. To do so, the water district would need to find $75,000 to foot a Project Study Report that will determine if the avalanche fencing would work and whether the district could apply for grants to build $3 million worth of fencing. A snow shed over the road would cost about $4 million.

“We want to find the money, get the engineering study done and make the final decision. It’s a long-term thing,” said board member Ron Cook.

The board members do not want to fund the study from the district’s $600,000 annual budget.

They hope to obtain the $75,000 needed for the study from the Placer County Transportation Planning Authority and other sources, said General Manager Tom Skjelstad.

“Our whole objective is to do this without spending the constituents’ money,” Cook said.

Board member Jerome Leininger said the district needs to do something about its property, but like other board members, he said that the county needs to start considering the entire road.

“I think it’s a county issue, frankly,” Grant said.

Board member Wendell Ulberg places responsibility squarely on the county and says Alpine Springs County Water District does not need to be involved, especially with an avalanche fence that might not work.

“Personally, I’m very much opposed to the snow fence,” he said.

“I would hate to see a fence go up and everyone have a false sense of security,” he said.

Nature always wins and if the snow level goes above the fence’s height, it won’t prevent avalanches, Ulberg said.

“The first row of homes between the two Deer Parks (roads) should probably be removed. I think the county should address that problem actively. Those homes are realistically unsafe,” Ulberg said.

He said there are precedents for public governments to buy out homes that have been built in unsafe areas such as flood plains.

“There’s numerous examples. It’s not unheard of,” he said.


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