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Sledding for trouble

Christina Proctor

It’s not the most daring, the parking is bad, and if the base isn’t deep enough the morning sun can melt away the snow in places leaving muddy patches.

What, then, is the great attraction of “Airport Hill”?

The privately owned acreage across from the Lake Tahoe Airport, which has drawn sledders and tobogganers for years, is to many just a major accident waiting to happen.

A typical scenario on a busy weekend includes cars lining both sides of nearby Jewel Road, people illegally parking along U.S. Highway 50 and in the airport parking lot. Drivers sometimes make illegal U-turns on the highway to catch a parking spot or unload equipment. Adults lead groups of children along the edge of the highway, inches from 50-mph traffic, and cross from the airport right in front of an almost blind curve in the road.

“It is a disaster waiting to happen,” said California Highway Patrol Officer Pat Lord. “They string across the highway, going across like ducks.”

Why do usually law-abiding citizens violate the vehicle code, jaywalk and trespass on private property? It seems that convenience and tradition play a big role. The hill is close to town, requires little driving and for years people have been doing it. The Tahoe Daily Tribune has even been a culprit. In a past feature story on sledding, the article recommended parking in the airport lot and crossing the highway to get to the hill. The fact that there are two snow parks nearby, one less than five miles from the city limits, doesn’t seem to have an effect on Airport Hill’s charm.

Janis Brand, acting airport manager, said the hill’s users many times have not only ignored “No Trespassing” signs placed by David Salzberg, the owner of the property, but have pulled them down and defaced them.

“Every kind of barrier he’s put up has been moved or pushed aside,” Brand said. “There’s nothing we can do but put up signs for it. When I’m out and I see people crossing I always inform them that it is private property.”

The same has been true for barriers placed by law enforcement. During the holiday week the area was marked off by tape and road barriers, but that lasted only a day. The CHP is trying to combat the danger by patrolling and ticketing.

“It’s a matter of resources and we have to prioritize our calls,” Lord said. “The key to success is to stay on top of it. We’ve found that keeping a constant presence every 45 minutes to an hour is effective. Some days because of traffic accidents and other calls that’s not possible. In three hours there can be 50 cars piled up there. We go through this every year.”

Part of the problem can be controlled later in the season by snowplows. Lord said the California Department of Transportation is directed to dump as much snow as they can on that side of the highway to discourage parking.

The property is outside South Lake Tahoe’s city limits so the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department is in charge of enforcing trespassing laws there. Deputy Sheriff Tom Hill said even with no-trespassing signs posted they would almost need a complaint from the owner to enforce them. Considering that Salzberg lives in the Bay Area, that becomes difficult.

“If he really wanted it enforced he would have to post signs and write a letter stating his wishes,” Hill explained. “Even then we would have to inform the people that they were trespassing and then if they refused to leave or they returned we could cite them.”

Salzberg didn’t reply to messages left Thursday at his business in San Mateo, Calif. According to California law, Salzberg could be sued if a trespasser was injured on his property. Regardless of the status of a visitor on private property the owner has the responsibility to protect them from unreasonable risk of harm while they are there. Larry Samelson, the head of the South Lake Tahoe office of the law firm Laub and Laub, said recently, the California Supreme Court clarified the law in regards to recreational activities.

“If you’re engaged in a recreational activity on someone’s property and you hurt yourself you cannot sue,” Samelson said. “But, if you are injured not by the recreational activity, but by a defect in the land that existed on the land for a long enough time that the owner could have been aware of it by a reasonable inspection than a lawsuit is possible.”

Hill said his department’s main concern is the potential danger people face when they cross the highway.

“Traditionally on weekends and holidays we’ll have large groups crossing the road. The adults are trying to shepherd sometimes several small children across, and their attention is drawn in several directions,” Hill said.

Drivers are also sometimes distracted by all the activity Hill pointed out.

“Their attention can be drawn to the tobogganers and they might not see people crossing in front of them,” he said. “There is big potential for an accident.”


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