Kirkwood plans for expansion
The U.S. Forest Service appears close to approving several new chairlifts that would increase skier capacity by almost 3,000 at Kirkwood Mountain Resort, a decision the resort has awaited for several years.
But some wonder if Kirkwood’s infrastructure can keep pace with its proposed growth. The resort has had several busy days this year which filled its parking lots and hampered traffic on Highway 88.
Each year it seems more outdoor enthusiasts are lured to Kirkwood’s message of a quiet ski village with the best snow in the world. But it’s also going through what its president calls “peak day growing pains.”
Thirteen power blackouts were logged since November at Kirkwood’s electricity company, Mountain Utility. A new diesel generator is not blending so well with four 30-year-old generators, according to Reid Bennett, president of Friends of Kirkwood, a group that advocates sustainable growth at the resort.
Half of the valley’s homeowners belong to his group, Bennett said.
“These 3,000 skiers, where are they going to park? How are they going to get there?” Bennett asked. He’s owned a home there 20 years.
“The necessary infrastructure is not being developed by Kirkwood resort, whether it’s reliable electricity, safe propane lines, parking and traffic,” he said.
The mountain’s overnight visitor capacity is 6,300 people. Its parking capacity is 2,500 cars. On peak days, however, it can see nearly 11,000 skiers, Cohee said. Electricity costs just under 50 cents per kilowatt hour, almost four times what Tahoe residents pay, according to Bennett.
Cohee said the resort’s management is not living in the dark. He said it is “ridiculous” to imply the resort is not working on these issues.
To run a successful business, the parking and power issues are things the resort must address to keep skiers coming, he said. The resort’s power bill is over $1 million each year.
“We are going to have to figure it out, we don’t have a choice here,” Cohee said. “It’s possible we are going to have to pave more parking lots.”
The chairlifts will not go up overnight, he said, but it won’t take 20 years to build them, either.
It will take another 12 to 20 years to build all the residential properties planned. On-mountain expansions will go at a faster pace than lodging growth, to keep Kirkwood’s lines the shortest in Tahoe, Cohee said.
Meanwhile, small towns in the foothills are feeling the impact of increased traffic to Kirkwood, said Chris Wright, executive director of the Foothill Conservancy, which works on land-use issues in Amador and Calaveras counties.
“Do they really need to expand? Who is this benefiting? Is it benefiting anything else but their bottom line?” Wright said.
The Forest Service recently released its environmental review of Kirkwood’s master plan, which came out in 2003. The agency must solicit public comment, which will be accepted through March 6.
Kirkwood hopes to build a ridge-top restaurant and five new lifts to match development of hundreds of homes and condominiums on private land at the base of the resort.
It also hopes to expand recreation to include paragliding launch sites.
The Forest Service has pinpointed Kirkwood’s plan as its “preferred alternative.” Their environmental review outlines two other possibilities: not doing anything at all, or leaving out two additional lifts on the back side. One of those lifts would go to the top of Thimble Peak, Kirkwood’s tallest mountain.
Kirkwood is known by some as “Traverse-wood” because some of its best terrain is accessible through hiking or traversing sideways to areas not directly under lifts. The resort aims to provide lifts to these hiker-only lines, according to the master plan.
A trails advocacy group opposed the lifts when the concept first appeared in 2003.
The Oregon California Trails Association said the lifts and a restaurant proposed on the resort’s back side would hamper views from the Emigrant Basin trail, which runs through the resort, according to Frank Mosbacher, spokesman for the El Dorado National Forest.
There are already two lifts on the back side.
Kirkwood is following in the footsteps of ski areas throughout the country that aim to attract long-term vacationers with a full-amenity ski village.
Tahoe resorts see most of their crowds on weekends, whereas the idea with “destination” resorts is to spread out skier visits throughout the week.
With that in mind, Colorado’s Telluride in the ’90s turned itself around from a boarded-up mining town to an exclusive ski getaway.
Fran Simmons and Ron Chmura, from Chicago, arrived at Kirkwood Tuesday night for a ski-and-stay package.
After extensive research, Chmura said they decided on Kirkwood because they wanted to avoid heavily congested ski areas in Tahoe. They weren’t planning on coming to Tahoe at all during their four-day visit.
“We don’t gamble much,” Simmons said.
The village concept made their stay convenient as far as food, tickets and rentals, Simmons said. And another condo owner invited them to dinner the night they arrived.
Prices for real estate in Kirkwood’s four villages range from $40,000 for partial ownership to $2.8 million for a large mountain home.
Ten-year resident Stan O’Grady said while he’s concerned about expensive power bills and sporadic outages, he chose to buy at Kirkwood because it is more rustic than anything else at Tahoe.
“And wonderful snow conditions. Essentially it’s kind of like a place in the National Forest as opposed to an overcrowded suburb,” O’Grady said.
Comments on the proposed Kirkwood expansion can be sent to:
Eldorado National Forest
Kirkwood MMDP DEIS
100 Forni Road,
Placerville, CA 95667
Sue Rodman, ID Team Leader
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