Placer County Supervisors showed little regard for what residents of the Tahoe Basin want in a development by approving a 760-unit Martis Valley West project in October. A lawsuit soon followed. They are now expected to kowtow to current Squaw owner KSL’s mid-20th century mountain-town-as-airport-Hilton vision for Olympic Valley 9 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15 in Kings Beach. How it shook down like this and why Basin residents, environmentalists and Tahoe enthusiasts should start sharpening their blades for the fight of their lives.
Two weeks before Tuesday’s much-anticipated Placer County Supervisors vote to approve or deny a private equity firm’s bid to turn Squaw Valley into Vacaville North, the following happened to me while driving to a community mixer hosted by the grass roots organization hellbent on seeing responsible development in Olympic Valley:
Tailgating in a mountain town is probably the biggest gaper move this side of walking around the ski lodge with boots unbuckled, pants bunched up mid-calf, goggles hanging like a dead toenail off the back of the helmet, holding the phone up for wi-fi like a lighter at a concert and complaining to the bartender that there’s no Oskar Blues on tap.
There are some things, in other words, you just don’t do.
…Especially during shoulder season.
Yet there I was coming into Tahoe City hot from Dollar Point, riding up the rear end of a sort of refurbished Jeep CJ-7, the kind that looks like it was recently exhumed from a campground complete with a signature pair of gas cans on either side of the spare, an open 12-pack of Milwaukee’s Best leaning against the back window and a shovel with a handle contoured to its owners’ grip attached to the side.
I was late for an event, and what’s worse, the guy I wanted to chat with wasn’t sure how long he would be there. And so it went that the Jeep and I turned into the parking lot in unison and I glided, guiltily trying not to make eye contact, into the spot next to him. Wouldn’t you know it, he was the guy I needed to talk to.
“Sorry,” I said. “I really am.” He nodded, my transgression instantly forgotten. And we went inside together. It was a little off-season reminder for me that in mountain towns especially, the people you need to listen to most are the ones who will still hold the door for you even if you were just being an asshole.
The event was one of the regular Keep Squaw True community mixers at Fat Cat Bar & Grill in Tahoe City. There were a couple guys tearing red raffle tickets at the door, otherwise the scene was straight out of Tahoe shoulder season central casting. Goggle tans long faded and summer tank top and flip flop lines actively being buried in hopeful layers. Preparation, almost to an unnecessary extent, for the first flurries to touch ground. Craft beers with see-sawing heads of foam rolled assembly line-like from the bar area while irreducible appetizers menu of Thai lettuce wraps and enchiladas verde materialized on the overcrowded four-tops.
There was a table full of door prizes, some of which were signed by the second Squaw Dalai Lama, Robb Gaffney, himself in attendance wearing his Keep Squaw True purple jersey kit and often answering the same questions with the same vigor and stoke from curious onlookers and old-time companions alike.
The backdrop were a handful of science project-sized renderings of the plans from KSL Capital Partners to build what looks like a giant airport food court on the base footprint of Squaw Valley USA. The Colorado-based private equity firm, which purchased the ski resort from the Cushing family in November, 2010, has made a pretty decent go buying resorts, installing freeway off ramp-type monoliths and moving on like reality TV house flippers sans the capped-tooth, bottle blond wife who wears ankle booties while demo’ing a kitchen.
While the conversation in the room was mostly reflexive catch up—October is the month people suddenly re-emerge back into mountain towns and sometimes folks notice you were gone and sometimes they don’t—the undertone was a serious one. Men telling lighthearted tales while sharpening their weapons around the campfire the night before battle.
Two things come to mind when KSL’s plans are staring at patrons downing more than their fair share of an ahi tower. Three, actually:
- Ever have to crawl on the freeway through a place like Fremont, or Castro Valley, or Oxnard, or Elk Grove or Palos Verdes during rush hour? The actual towns somewhere off the offramp may feature varying degrees of desirability and livability, but there, at that moment, looking only at the radio dial for answers, you see them: Rows of houses or a cartoon loop of mega-centers (Target/Home Depot/Mimi’s, Dick’s) and you ponder: Who the f*ck chooses to live here? Or did they? Or is this all just one big absurd Truman Show backdrop to your life? Are these places simply great set design, Old West frontier town facades supported by two-by-fours unseen in the back? Suddenly, you take comfort in the unrealness of it all, knowing your passage through here is temporary and for show. You wonder then about the guy in the Toyota Sienna in front of you getting off the freeway. Is he stopping for gas…or for a lifetime? Does he even exist? Anyway, these types of feels, not “Holy cow, 37 more days till KT starts turning!” are what the KSL plans to build out of Squaw connote for Tahoe locals.
- The plans themselves seem seem at once so impossibly bland and brazen that they feel like decoys. They are so unbelievably out of synch with the landscape and the desire of the people who are lucky enough to enjoy it, they have to be fakes.
And the third:
- This group isn’t just a rag tag bunch of Big Truck hat-wearing bros riding around in a Westie that breaks down on Brockway Summit en route to their shift at New Moon Natural Foods. This group is organized, fortified and on the right side of history.
The real question is not whether Keep Squaw True’s mission—responsible, sustainable growth and development for a region that is looking to become winter’s next pall bearer as the Earth warms up like a dorm room with a space heater cranking—is a just cause. The real question is twofold: Does Keep Squaw True movement have enough in its war chest to fight through to the end? And will Placer County Supervisors fall in lockstep with the rest of 2016 on Tuesday morning and do the wrong thing by voting KSL’s plans through?
I’d like to say yes on all counts and not because I’m entrenched on the side of the proles vs. the machine. And not because I’m rooting for The Man to be litigated into oblivion. And not because the hero, Sierra Watch attorney and community organizer Isaac Silverman, is as disarmingly easy to talk to as he is precise and businesslike as anyone in a mesh snap back and year-round winter beard has ever dared to be. And not because I know there is a stacked deck against Tahoe-based supervisor and the Katniss Everdeen of Basin politics, Jennifer Montgomery. The rest of the all-male supes review representing scorched earth spots of the county even read off as dystopian as the Hunger Games (District 1: Jack Duran, Roseville; District 2: Robert Weygandt, Lincoln; District 3: Jim Holmes, Loomis; District 4: Kirk Uhler, Folsom). And not just because we now live in #TrumpsAmerica …though these are all good indicators of the way it’s going to go.
It’s because the fight to restore, and yes, develop—responsibly, with the needs of the land, the residents and the visitors, the century we’re in, not the one that was, foremost in mind—is a just one. The fight to preserve the actual sacred ground footprint of Squaw, in other words, extends well beyond a board meeting. Because if we’ve learned anything from the last couple weeks here in this country, it’s that every struggle for what’s right is going to be a protracted one.
“I don’t want to say it’s going to come down to a legal battle with KSL or not,” Silverman said. “But this isn’t the first time Tahoe has seen this kind of thing—every generation has this fight. To say that corporations can’t come here and make money or that private investment in our community is wrong. But you have to say, ‘When we look back in 50 years what are they going to think of the decisions we made?’ At one point there was a proposed two-lane freeway circling Tahoe with a bridge over Emerald Bay. Can you imagine that?”
Silverman’s boss, Sierra Watch board president David Welch, says the group is not opposed to development nor is he particularly willing to further make a media villain out of Squaw CEO Andy Wirth, who has suddenly become Darth Vader when you found out Darth Vader was only a puppet in a black phallic mask to his much more powerful, prune-faced Emperor boss. Wirth, for his effort, does a plenty good job vilifying himself by the sheer act of opening the space between his goatee. The Basin’s most famous sufferer of foot-in-mouth disease hucked himself off the cliff and tomahawked onto the wrong side of the zeitgeist in late-October when he, a corporate shill, attempted to skewer one of the emerging leading political figures of our time, California Attorney General, Senator-Elect and a potential favorite for a White House bid in 2020, Kamala Harris. Not only that, but he called her an it. “Everybody should be concerned that an Attorney General allows itself to be manipulated by a small local group at the last minute,” Wirth publicly said to the sound of record needles scratching everywhere. The statement was basically the Tahoe equivalent of a phony billionaire calling out a president on a fake birth certificate…then having the audacity to run for president himself…Oh, wait. Bad example.
Moving on: “Look, (Wirth’s) not the one making the decisions, it’s the guys in a big office building in Denver,” Welch said. “(KSL) is a corporation. They’ve done this place after place. They have a blueprint for how they make money. But they’re not criminals. They’re not doing nefarious or underhanded work. They just happen to think that a major development—one that is awful, it really is—that doesn’t fit is best for this area and will give them the biggest return.
“We just happen not to agree. It’s simple.”
Sierra Watch has gone to court before, many times and for many years. And they have been successful in helping create responsible development in the Tahoe Basin, for the most part. Welch cited then Northstar owners Booth Creek Resort’s proposal to mega-develop Martis Valley in the late ‘90s as an example of a plan that was heavily litigated for seven years before a comprehensive community plan was agreed upon.
Yes, mountain McMansions and golf courses were eventually erected, but overall, development and planning went from, “they’re going to tell us what they’re going to do, to let’s do something together,” Welch said.
Now controversy over a new Martis Valley plan (Martis Valley West Parcel) is currently blowing up Tahoe resident’s feeds. “A different story for a different day,” Welch said. (Update: On Nov. 10, Sierra Watched joined The League to Save Lake Tahoe and Mountain Area Preservation filing a lawsuit against Placer County on the grounds that the Board of Supervisors’ approval of the 760-unit Martis Valley West Specific Plan, so the entity is already all-in again for Martis Valley preservation.) The move came on the heels of the California Clean Energy Committee’s decision to file a complaint against Placer County on Oct. 26 over the same project.
With a pair of legal conflagrations burning, it is a good thing the Sierra Watch, itself a streamlined nonprofit run by mostly volunteer effort, is not only backed by dollar bumper sticker donations—even if that populist swell is the lifeblood of the organization’s ground game. Silent denizens and protectors of the region, most of whom hail from the Bay Area and have called Lake Tahoe, Squaw specifically, their backyard for generations will be damned to see a giant effing water theme park go up in their four-season playground. It would be the equivalent of suggesting they install an above-ground pool in their backyard in Ross. They like their wines stored at 45, their sculptures bronze, their plates small and they generally fly through life in the section of the plane that has a partition—if they can’t get a charter that is. These are the folks who could remodel High Camp into a Montage with last month’s interest and instead choose to write big checks so the carpet doesn’t get switched out in their lifetime.
See where the night is headed?
In spite of what the supes decide 9 a.m. Tuesday in Kings Beach, thus far the rest of the region and the state certainly seems to have Keep Squaw True’s back. As mentioned, Kamela Harris and the California Attorney General’s office supports the group’s efforts as does the Tahoe Area Sierra Club, the League to Save Lake Tahoe, the Town of Truckee, the California Highway Patrol, Tahoe Regional Planning Authority, Lahontan Regional Water Resources Control Board, Squaw Valley Municipal Advisory Council, and more than 5,000 petition signers all support taking KSL to task over its current plans.
It’s not exactly a David vs. Goliath story. But nothing ever really is. Goliath, after all, doesn’t seem so big when he’s up so high that he can’t see what’s going on on the ground.
“Did they see us coming at first?” Silverman asked rhetorically, “No. Not really. But they definitely see us now.”