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Federal judge halts major Lake Tahoe ski resort expansion

HOMEWOOD, Calif. - Regional conservation groups are celebrating a federal judge's ruling to send a proposed Sierra ski resort expansion back to the drawing board, a decision viewed by local government and the project's developer as a minor roadblock in a years-long, multi million-dollar effort to upgrade a major portion of land off Lake Tahoe's West Shore.

The public interest law firm Earthjustice - representing the Friends of the West Shore and Tahoe Area Sierra Club - filed the suit on Jan. 5, 2012, in the U.S. District Court of Eastern California against the Homewood Mountain Ski Area Master Plan, naming the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, JMA Ventures (the San Francisco-based company that owns Homewood) and Placer County as defendants.

According to a Jan. 4, 2013, ruling from U.S. District Court Judge William B. Shubb, Placer County and TRPA improperly analyzed the possibility JMA could have proposed a smaller project upon eventually approving the $500 million plan in 2011.

In his 114-page ruling, Shubb rejected JMA's contention it would lose money if it reduced the size of the planned resort, noting that the combined Environmental Impact Report and Environmental Impact Statement failed to consider all streams of income, including condominium and hotel revenues.

"The EIR-EIS misleads the public by suggesting that (ski lift) ticket sales revenue is the only relevant factor in assessing the financial viability of Homewood..." the judge wrote.

No construction can begin until a "legally adequate" EIR-EIS that considers a scaled-down project had been prepared and circulated, Shubb ruled.

Friends of the West Shore and Tahoe Area Sierra Club hailed the ruling as "vindication of their efforts to protect the beauty and clarity of the scenic lake," according to a Monday morning press release from Earthjustice.

"This decision is yet another reminder that the agencies entrusted with protecting beautiful Lake Tahoe, which has already suffered so much from runaway development, must not continue to allow private gain at the Lake's expense," said Wendy Park, an attorney with Earthjustice, in a statement.

In a late Monday afternoon statement issued through Glodow Nead Communication, a San Francisco-based public relations firm, JMA viewed Shubb's ruling as mostly a success because he ruled in favor of JMA on "the vast majority" of various points of dispute. Specifically, the company pointed to the following items on which Shubb disagreed:

• The plaintiffs argued the project was inconsistent with the TRPA Compact and did not comply with agency rules concerning land coverage.

• The plaintiffs argued TRPA and Placer County had not done enough to address air quality in the region.

• The plaintiffs argued the EIR/EIS had not done enough to analyze noise impacts during construction and from expanded snowmaking.

• The plaintiffs argued the EIR/EIS should have analyzed more alternatives.

"We are very appreciative of the detailed and comprehensive nature of Judge Shubb's opinion and while we understand we will need to update a small component of the economic analysis provided to TRPA and the County, the Judge's denial of all the other issues raised by the plaintiffs provides a clear roadmap for the Homewood project to move forward," JMA Chairman Art Chapman said in a separate statement.

TRPA took a similar stance on the lawsuit, according to a Monday evening press release, saying Shubb validated all of the agency's environmental findings, remanding the project back to the agency for review "on one very limited issue."

"After a thorough review, the court affirmed all of the environmental approaches relied upon to improve ecosystem conditions in the Tahoe Basin," said TRPA Executive Director Joanne S. Marchetta in a statement. "The court further affirmed using public-private partnerships to maximize threshold gain through environmental redevelopment."

On Dec. 14, 2011, the TRPA Governing Board unanimously approved the Homewood plan. The project includes construction of a 5-star hotel with up to 75 rooms, 56 residential condominiums, 47 multi-family condominiums, 48 ski-in ski-out chalets, 16 townhomes, 13 workforce housing apartments and 15,000 square feet of retail space, along with an additional 40 individually owned condos and 30 individually owned penthouse units.

It also calls for a variety of major environmental upgrades and land use restorations to the West Shore resort's footprint, and is the only mixed-use resort in the U.S., according to TRPA, designed to incorporate gold level LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green building certification for neighborhood development design standards.

After filing their suit, the Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore referred to the project as "a wall-to-wall mass of buildings that climb 77 feet up the face of the Homewood ski slope" that doesn't fit with the community, and doesn't protect the lake.

"Fortunately for the public, the judge agreed that the developer provided an incomplete financial picture of a smaller-sized and less harmful project, so that it was never given a fair chance," said Ron Grassi, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, in a Monday morning statement. "Rather than relying simply on the developer's paid consultant, the county and TRPA should have done their own independent analysis. A multi-million dollar development doesn't have to be huge to be successful."

While a timeline of when the issue may be back before TRPA is unknown as of this writing, Chapman said the company's goal remains to revitalize Homewood.

"JMA looks forward to working with the County and TRPA to address Judge Shubb's concern," Chapman said. "The majority of the West Shore community supports the proposal and the County and TRPA both unanimously approved it after a near four year public process.

"Judge Shubb's ruling is important, and warrants attention; however, the ruling does nothing to undermine JMA's resolve to redevelop Homewood into the charming, environmentally sensitive, viable project it has the potential to be."

Staff report


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Jan 8, 2013 09:31AM Published Jan 7, 2013 05:05PM Copyright 2013 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.