Commission gets first look at gondola plan

Angelo Morales doesn't let bright lights, altered hillsides or a towering gondola system cloud his vision of a $600 million luxury resort in the Sierra Nevada above Carson Valley.

If Morales and the video extolling the project are to be believed, Carson Valley residents won't see much of a change.

The resort buildings, he says, will not create a new skyline. And the gondola linking the Valley with Lake Tahoe's south shore "will disappear into the trees," he says. "(Residents) won't see much."

Morales is project director for Kingsbury Summit Development, a group based in Incline Village. The plan for the resort and gondola was first presented in February. Morales and other representatives reappeared Thursday with a video outlining their plans to tell the Douglas County Commission they are serious about the project.

The group is considering a high-speed gondola that would move passengers between a loading station on 22 acres near David Walley's Hot Springs outside of Genoa and a second station near Caesars Tahoe, 5.85 miles away. The gondola would pass the "Kingsbury Summit Complex," a self-contained resort on 66 acres below Daggett Summit including 100,000 square feet of retail space, a 500-room hotel-casino, 300 time-share condominiums and 200 employee housing units. An ice arena, gymnasium and other recreational facilities are also included.

Kingsbury Summit would be aimed at "destination resort" travelers, who Morales said are likely to come from all over the world and stay up to two weeks, as opposed to the weekend and seasonal travelers who usually visit the area. He says the resort would be a world-class facility that would strengthen tourism by drawing visitors throughout the year, instead of just in summer and winter, the current busy seasons.

A project outline provided by Kingsbury Summit Development estimates development costs between $600 and $700 million; creation of 2,000 new jobs, hundreds of construction jobs and plenty of tax revenues for the county.

n Plans not final. Morales and engineer Keith Ruben and Carl Skylling, a representative for Garaventa CTEC Inc., a gondola manufacturer, admitted outside the meeting that the project is far from ready to start.

Morales said he hopes to brief the county planning commission on the project in December, but that could be delayed. A March date before the county commission is contemplated for requesting a master plan amendment and zone change.

Ruben said the land the gondola and resort would cover is designated for forest and range uses, with one house per 19 acres. Master plan and zone changes allowing commercial and multifamily housing would be needed.

In addition, the group needs easements on Forest Service land for the gondola route. Plus, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency would have to approve the gondola station at the south shore.

Specifics like the capacity and design of parking areas near the Walley's loading station and gondola fares are also unknown. Morales said special attention will be paid to the project's esthetics and environmentally friendly innovations like solar power will be used when possible. The KSD video claims the tram won't be visible from around the Valley.

Ideally, Skylling noted, the group would like Douglas County's approval before approaching the other entities. A to-do list in the KSD packet includes formation of a management company for the project and starting "serious negotiations with various partners in the project," such as an unnamed gambling coalition and state gaming authorities.

n A new way to travel. Morales and Skylling say they will emphasize the benefits of the project, especially on transportation.

The gondola could be used by commuters and visitors alike, they say, reducing traffic at the south shore and on Kingsbury Grade, the primary road between the Valley and the Lake. Citing the possible traffic reductions, the group plans to ask for state and federal funding to help pay for the gondola.

"The other option is cutting a Kingsbury Grade-type road," said Skylling.

Skylling emphasized the safety of gondola systems. Asked by County Commissioner Bernie Curtis if the group is concerned that its Valley loading station would be adjacent to a major earthquake fault, Skylling replied that gondolas are designed to handle flexibility and movement. He also said they are statistically 6.6 times safer than automobiles.

They're also hardy and can operate even in the severe weather that closes roads, Skylling noted outside the meeting.

"It takes quite a bit to shut them down," he said.

"You don't hear of 285 people getting killed, like on an airplane," added Morales.

n Gondola could go. The group is apparently prepared to ditch the gondola if the approval isn't granted. A note in the group's written proposal says that although the lift is a "major component" of the proposal, "KSD will seek county approval of the KSD complex alone should the gondola not be approv(ed) for any reason."

That would leave Kingsbury Grade as the primary route to the resort complex, described in the project outline as a "dangerous" road that "has plagued local residents and the county for decades."

The backers will probably have a variety of questions to answer, ranging from how to protect the resort from wildfires to the exact visual impacts of the proposal. Those issues were mentioned by county leaders in February.

The county commission took no action and made no comments on the proposal Thursday. The KSD presentation was intended only as an update so commissioners could give accurate answers to their constituents about the group's plans.


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