New developments between Truckee and Tahoe could change life in the Sierra
November 4, 2004
MARTIS VALLEY, Calif. – Migration to this high mountain valley north of Lake Tahoe has taken a stunning, evolutionary turn.
Formerly known for many thousands of deer and flocks of birds, the seasonal influx here is now marked by well-to-do vacationers flying in on private jets to a winter resort community that is about to become the largest in the Sierra Nevada.
Nearby Lake Tahoe’s enduring popularity has bred an appetite for mountain living that it can no longer accommodate.
The result is the resort-sprawl that has been creeping for three decades into this 45,000-acre valley tucked between Truckee and the northern beaches of the azure lake.
Now, growth is on the verge of transforming Martis Valley into a checkerboard of 6,000 high-end homes and nearly 1 million square feet of commercial space with hotels and shopping centers.
If the projects stay on schedule, construction is expected to continue for the next 15 years.
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Conservationists, the town of Truckee and California’s attorney general are staunchly opposed to the half-dozen gated golf and ski resort communities under construction or planned. The critics warn that population increases, traffic congestion and a shortage of affordable housing will destroy the bucolic appeal of a historic sawmill town.
The Placer County Board of Supervisors late last year approved a new master-plan for the valley and recently gave the go-ahead to the area’s fifth subdivision.
In response to critics, board members say that they have modified the original 1975 plan that would have allowed 12,000 homes. And they note that most of the homes being built are hidden by trees and not visible from the valley floor.
Rex Bloomfield is the only board member opposed to the latest plan.
“There’s a lot of concern about losing the sense of this part of the Sierra, the open meadow with its forested sides,” Bloomfield said.
“What we are seeing is a big push to high-end subdivisions. We’re talking about people who fly their jets in and spend a few weeks at their third or fourth home. I’m not sure that’s the way we want to go. If it continues, in a generation or so, we may be scratching our heads and saying, ‘We should have stopped it sooner.”‘
The California Department of Fish and Game warned that the county’s environmental study “substantially understates project impacts to vegetation and wildlife, substantially overstates the value of proposed mitigation measures and improperly concludes that significant project impacts to vegetation and wildlife are mitigated to below a level of significance.”
Wildlife biologists say a deer herd that used to number at least 10,000 has dwindled to 3,000 because of building in the valley over the past three decades. The development began with the Northstar ski area and an accompanying complex of vacation homes. The resort remains the nexus of much of the construction, which is being done by East-West Partners, based in Vail, Colo.
“It certainly has been a controversial plan, it’s understandable,” said David Tirman, project manager at Northstar. “Growth here is inevitable. The key is to carefully think and plan that growth. It’s a balancing act. But I think development and protection of the environment, they are not mutually exclusive necessarily.”
East-West Partners has set aside a $5 million fund to purchase land in the valley for conservation as well as another fund for environmental projects in the region.
That’s not enough for opponents who hope to halt or scale back the handful of projects awaiting approval.
“If you give up on this area then you’re going to give up on the Tahoe-Truckee region,” said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch, a conservation group that opposes the scale of the planned communities in Martis Valley.
“This will happen everywhere. Is the Sierra Nevada going to be a high-altitude suburbia with a lot of golf courses, big developments and traffic congestion? Or is it going to be this majestic landscape? That’s what’s at stake here.”
Similar arguments have helped persuade residents of Lake Tahoe, just a few miles away, to enact policies that impose strict limits on growth, making it one of the state’s most protected communities.
This year, planning officials released just 225 single family home “allocations.” An allocation is the first step to getting a building permit that may never be issued.
That system has made Martis Valley and its expanse of private land all the more attractive to developers. The valley floor was formerly ranch land, used for cattle grazing and, at its fringes, timber harvesting. Though it has remained a popular destination for hiking, fishing and cross-country skiing, development has been altering the character of the valley since the 1970s.
A small airport sits on its northern rim, and the decades-old Northstar ski resort occupies much of the valley’s midsection. There are thousands of acres of undeveloped land, but much of it will be filled in by developments that have been approved by the Board of Supervisors.
In a region where longtime residents find they no longer would be able to afford their family home, posh resorts are not always welcome.
“We bought our home more than 10 years ago, and it has more than tripled in value,” said Tony Lashbrook, community development director for the town of Truckee. “I could not afford it today.”
During winter, what is normally a 15-minute drive from Kings Beach at Lake Tahoe north to Truckee can take three hours, residents say. Placer County’s growth plan considers the possibility of widening Highway 267, which bisects Martis Valley, from two lanes to four.
The Truckee City Council has opposed much of the growth in the valley, saying the town’s infrastructure and services would snap under the strain.
“Truckee bears the burden,” Mayor Joshua Susman said. “The people who will be serving these people will be living in the town of Truckee. We have our own problems with affordable housing. Development needs to pay its way.”
But Truckee, with a population of 15,000, has ambitious growth plans of its own. Current projects will add more than 1,000 homes, a hotel and two golf courses to the former railroad town. The town’s master plan would allow the population to swell to 50,000 in 20 years.
Half of the homes in Truckee are second homes and the vacation retreats in Martis Valley are occupied only a few weeks of the year. The idea of so many absentee homeowners with no emotional investment in the region worries some, who consider the shift from rural to suburban the biggest threat to the area.
Stefanie Olivieri runs a Truckee clothing store that has been in her family’s hands for three generations. She shares the ambivalence of some businesspeople here who say the growth will be good for business, but bad for the community.
“Oh, I’ll make money from it,” she said. “But I’ll lose some things that are very important to me, that sense of community, the small town atmosphere. This planning is driven by greed and development. People don’t become outspoken until the bulldozer is outside their door. But it’s here.”