Final judgement: Olympic Valley development shot down, but new plan may be submitted this year

OLYMPIC VALLEY, Calif. — A California court last week issued its final judgment in the long-running fight against massive development in Olympic Valley, but the developer is working to iron out the issues and may submit an adjusted plan in the fall. 

The court ordered all approvals of the project be rescinded, closing out a victory for Sierra Watch and the grassroots movement to protect the alpine valley formerly known as Squaw Valley.

Sierra Watch recently won an 11-year battle.
Provided / Tahoe Chamber

“We did it,” said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch. “It’s taken 11 years of commitment and dedication to prove how we can combine our passion for the Sierra into a successful movement to protect the mountains we love.”

Would-be developers Alterra Mountain Company, then acting as KSL Capital Partners, purchased the Tahoe ski resort formerly known as Squaw Valley and surrounding lands in 2010. Within a year, they applied to Placer County for development entitlements to remake the region with a series of high-rise condominiums, a 90,000 square-foot indoor waterpark — as wide as a Walmart and nearly three times as tall, and a rollercoaster. 

A 2013 Scale Model of Proposed development in Tahoe’s Olympic Valley.
Provided / Tahoe Chamber

“Alterra’s project sounded like a good time – in Vegas,” said Mooers. “But had no place in the mountains of Tahoe.”

Sierra Watch responded by building a grassroots movement under a banner of Keep Squaw True. Thousands of volunteers got involved. Hundreds spoke at public hearings.

In November 2016, the Placer County Board of Supervisors voted to approve the project. A month later, Sierra Watch filed its initial legal challenges, pointing out that Placer County’s approvals violated state planning laws.  

Last year, the Third District Court of Appeals ruled in the conservationists’ favor, citing impacts on Lake Tahoe, fire danger, noise, and traffic. Last week’s Final Judgment codifies that decision.  

The judgment stated, “the county committed a prejudicial abuse of discretion by failing to comply with CEQA when it approved the project and certified the EIR.

Judgment in this case is therefore entered in favor of Petitioner Sierra Watch,” continued the five-page document. “The County shall vacate and set aside its approval of the Project, including the Specific Plan, the Development Agreement, the Large-Lot Vesting Tentative Subdivision Map, amendments to the Squaw Valley General Plan and Land Use Ordinance, zoning change, development standards, and related resolutions and ordinances … adoption of related findings of fact, statement of overriding considerations, and mitigation monitoring reporting program; and certification of the EIR.”

After nearly six years in court, the legal fight is over.

“While the superior court originally determined Placer County complied with the California Environmental Quality Act, in December 2021, the Third District Court of Appeal opinion reversed portions of the Superior Court’s decision and instructed the court to enter a new judgment,” said a statement from Palisades Tahoe. “The judgment issued on Thursday by the Superior Court is procedural and complies with the Court of Appeal’s instructions. Under CEQA, it is the county — not the courts — that ultimately decides whether the previously approved project will move forward. The resort team is currently working with county staff to resolve the issues identified and re-submit the plan for public input on the issues raised by the Appellate Court this fall.”

According to the press release by Sierra Watch, Alterra claimed they were committed to reviving their failed proposal and trying again for a new round of approvals. At a Town Hall meeting in Olympic Valley, they claimed there is “not enough to do” in Tahoe and would apply for a new set of entitlements “sometime next year.”

The path to approvals that Alterra first embarked on back in 2011, however, has only gotten steeper – as the issues and impacts, such as wildfire risk and lack of housing, that encouraged initial opposition have grown more acute.

“Our hope is that Alterra will abandon its reckless proposal and come to the table to work together on development that respects the shared values of the Tahoe Sierra,” said Mooers of Sierra Watch. “But our love of the mountains is timeless. And if it takes another 11 years of working together to defend Tahoe, we’ll be there every step of the way.”

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