Mountain sprawl |

Mountain sprawl

The Sierra Nevada mountain range offers breathtaking views, marvelous winter recreation ” and mega-projects for developers.

As owners of the Royal Gorge cross-country ski resort prepare to submit an application to Placer County for a project on Donner Summit, other communities throughout the Sierra are gearing up for the impact of a growing population and

high-mountain resort sprawl.

In Lassen County, supervisors recently approved the largest development in the Sierra, with 4,000 resort units, golf courses and a ski resort on the slopes of Dyer mountain, considered a sacred ground for the Hanylekim Maidu.

“It should be left alone,” said Ron Morales, chairman of the small tribe of about 100

people. “It’s sacred to us. It’s being disrespected.”

The project also is expected to drive up home prices in the region, making it difficult for the existing community to live there, said Steve Robinson of the Mountain Meadow Conservancy.

A hundred years earlier, a Honey Lake Maidu burial site was moved to dam what is now Lake Almanor. Today gates protect the million-dollar homes that rise up from the lake’s perimeter.

Despite the drawbacks of development, the allure of property tax money is difficult for some small remote communities to turn down, Robinson said.

“(Developers) come in and promise the sun and moon just to get their foot in the door,” Robinson said.

The Rocky Mountain region ” in Aspen, Vail and Telluride, for example ” has been a stomping ground for high-end developers for decades. Many developers see the mountain-resort projects as inevitable.

“It’s a matter of sitting down as reasonable human beings and working out our differences,” said Todd Foster, project owner of Royal Gorge.

The population in the Sierra, running 400 miles and the longest unbroken mountain range in the country, is expected to triple by 2040, according to a Sierra Nevada Alliance report released earlier this year.

Housing prices have more than doubled in the Sierra between 1997 and 2003, and second homes make up 15 percent of all housing units, according to the group’s State of the Sierra report. It found some Sierra communities are growing at twice the rate as the rest of California.

“There’s been tremendous growth in second homes,” said Steven Poncelet, vice president of development for the Sierra Business Council. Resort developments and “shadow populations,” such as time shares, also are on the rise, Poncelet said.

Mountain communities benefit from the strong tax base developments provide and the tourist economies that feed them. On the flip side, tourist economies tend to be cyclical and usually support lower-wage, service driven jobs, he said.

“It’s hard to sustain a family on that kind of work,” he said.

In towns such as Truckee, the high cost of housing has resulted in a declining school

enrollment, Poncelet said.

County planning

John Muir’s “range of light,” his description of the Sierra, is hardly pristine anymore. “Nature lovers” driving SUVs have snarled traffic on the roadways leading to Yosemite, Tahoe and Mammoth Mountain for decades.

Placer County is one of the faster growing counties in California, according to its economic and demographic Profile for 2007.

Within its high-country borders places such as Kings Beach and Tahoe Vista grew by about 45 percent for the period between 1990 and 2000.

The county’s winter resorts are flourishing. Squaw Valley Ski Corp. is the county’s

fifth largest employer, and the newly expanded North Star-at-Tahoe feature condominiums, cafes and plenty of shopping.

Even the Ritz-Carlton hopes to cash in on Bay Area residents hungry for a weekend of luxury in the mountains by opening a 172-room hotel at the North Star-at-Tahoe in 2009.

Owners of the Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort say they have modest plans for their project that will serve as a gateway to the wilderness.

“Our biggest problem at Donner Summit is that some residents assume we intend to build something that is just like every other corporate ski village they’ve seen. But that’s not what we are about,” said Todd Foster, Royal Gorge project owner.

The project, which spans two counties, raises concerns for Nevada County’s 5th District Supervisor Ted Owens. He worries that Placer County will reap the property tax dollars while Nevada County pays for road and other infrastructure.

But he can’t deny a developers right to make a profit.

“The land has zoning designed for development,” he said. “That’s why these people bought it. They have a right to go through the process.”

Martis Valley

The landscape of the Sierra Nevada in future years will depend on county general plans and whether community members get involved with the planning process, said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch.

Sierra Watch was formed seven years ago when developers envisioned transforming the picturesque Martis Valley, tucked between Truckee and Lake Tahoe, into a neighborhood of high-end homes.

Land owners, elected officials and community volunteers reached a collaborative settlement in 2006, which set aside open space, put caps on future development and provided money for workforce housing.

“It took local residents standing up and just saying no to a bad development,” Mooers said.


To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail

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