Tahoe conservationists score major court victory over Martis Valley Development | TahoeDailyTribune.com
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Tahoe conservationists score major court victory over Martis Valley Development

Submitted to the Tribune

TRUCKEE, Calif. – In a landmark victory for Sierra conservationists, California’s Third District Court of Appeal ruled in the groups’ favor in a long-running fight to rein in oversized development in North Lake Tahoe. The unanimous decision is the latest in a string of conservation victories in the Tahoe Sierra and a major setback to the would-be developers of the Martis Valley West proposal.

A view of the Lake Tahoe Basin from Martis Peak.
Provided

“This ruling is a significant victory for the preservation of Lake Tahoe’s beauty and environmental health,” said Darcie Goodman Collins, CEO of the League to Save Lake Tahoe, or Keep Tahoe Blue. “Any development – whether inside or outside the Basin – is accountable for impacts to the Lake’s unique water quality and clarity. This precedent makes that certain.”

The Martis project’s landowner, Sierra Pacific Industries, sought entitlements to allow construction of a gated development with new roads, commercial malls, and 760 vacation homes in a “very high fire hazard zone” on an environmentally sensitive, undeveloped ridgeline at the northern rim of the Tahoe Basin.



According to the project’s environmental review, it would have added 3,985 new daily car trips to the Tahoe region’s infamous traffic gridlock. Those cars would have not only been bad for traffic, they would have been bad for the Lake, adding pollution to the Tahoe Basin that is steadily robbing the Lake of its famous clarity.

Co-petitioners League to Save Lake Tahoe, Mountain Area Preservation and Sierra Watch pursued a long-running legal challenge to the project, seeking to overturn Placer County’s 2016 approvals. The conservation groups argued that decision-makers, in issuing approvals, failed to meet state law by downplaying or disregarding impacts on the clarity of Lake Tahoe, greenhouse gas emissions, traffic and fire safety.



In a court hearing from December of 2021, petitioners pointed to recent precedent set in Sierra Watch’s successful challenge to proposed development in nearby Olympic Valley. And the appellate court agreed, citing the Sierra Watch v. Placer County (2021) precedent and finding that “the County abused its discretion by not describing Lake Tahoe’s existing water quality.”

Combined, last year’s decision in the Olympic Valley case and yesterday’s decision on Martis Valley indicate the growing success of conservationists’ efforts to protect the Lake from development just outside the rim of the Tahoe Basin.

“This is great news for anyone who cares about Tahoe,” said Tom Mooers, Executive Director of Sierra Watch. “And another example of how we work together to defend our mountain values.”

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) required Placer County to research and write an Environmental Impact Report that fully assessed and disclosed the negative impacts the new development would have on the property and surrounding region, and to ensure harm was prevented through effective mitigation measures.

The court ruled that Placer County’s review of the Martis project was “inadequate,” taking issue with the County’s disclosure of the impacts on Lake Tahoe, as well as its failure to mitigate the Project’s significant climate effects. Further, the court sided with the California Clean Energy Committee on separate claims that the project failed to incorporate available alternative energy sources and mitigations for added traffic.

California maintains a longstanding commitment to maintaining the clarity of Tahoe’s famously blue waters. CEQA even expressly designates the Tahoe Basin as an area of “Statewide, Regional, or Areawide Significance.” But Placer County’s environmental review downplayed the impacts on the Lake, especially how traffic from the new development would have added pollutants that are steadily degrading Lake Tahoe’s unique water quality and clarity.

The appellate court’s decisions in both development cases – Martis Valley West and Olympic Valley – deliver a stiff rebuke to developers who attempt to skirt Tahoe’s strict environmental protections by siting projects just outside of the Basin and the jurisdiction of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

“The Martis Valley West project would have negatively impacted everyone in the Tahoe-Truckee Region,” sais Alexis Ollar, Executive Director of Mountain Area Preservation. “It’s been a truly grassroots effort to stop the sprawl.”

While the conservationists celebrated the added protections against Tahoe water quality impacts, traffic and emissions, they expressed severe disagreement with the court’s lack of action on the project’s fire evacuation plan. They argued that the project’s emergency plan was insufficient and placed community members in heightened danger, especially in light of recent, disastrous California wildfires. The co-petitioners are currently considering whether to pursue further legal action on those grounds.

The conservation groups are represented by Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP, a public interest law firm specializing in government, land use, renewable energy and environmental law.

“We’re proud to play our role in protecting Lake Tahoe’s unique environmental resources,” says Amy Bricker, an attorney at the firm.

Looking ahead, would-be developers could seek a re-hearing or appeal to the California Supreme Court.

 


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