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Resort Development Pressue Confronts High Sierra Valley

Development pressure in the Martis Valley, just north of Lake Tahoe, is as great as anywhere in the high Sierra. Straddling the Placer and Nevada county line about 25 miles west of Reno, the area appears to be evolving into a high-end resort destination. Several thousand homes and vacation units are proposed in unincorporated Placer County and the Town of Truckee, as are at least half a dozen golf courses.   

To address the growth, Placer County has updated the 1975 Martis Valley Community Plan. The planning effort was intended to examine services and infrastructure for the anticipated growth, but it has evolved into a land use argument, county Planning Director Fred Yeager said. Indeed, environmentalists and some homeowners complain that Placer County should not have used the 1975 plan as a starting point and instead should reconsider how much development is appropriate.    

In the meantime, Truckee, in Nevada County, is growing so quickly that city officials believe the town could reach the 20-year growth projection in the 1995 general plan years ahead of time.   

The Martis Valley first gained notoriety - at least among Anglo settlers - in 1846, when the Donner Party bogged down at the valley's western edge. Despite the area's intense winter weather, Truckee became an established mining and timber town before the turn of the century. By the 1960s, the area had begun to attract development in the form of resorts and second homes, for which Interstate 80 provided year-round access. Nevada County approved the 4,000-lot Tahoe-Donner subdivision on the steep hillsides a few miles from downtown Truckee in the 1960s. Northstar Resort - one of the few Sierra Nevada ski resorts on private property - opened about 10 miles south of Truckee in Placer County in 1972. Development continued at such a rapid pace that growth was a central issue in Truckee's 1992 incorporation election.   

Martis Valley development exploded during the mid- and late-90s. In 1995, Placer County approved the Lahontan subdivision, which set a new standard for the area. The 730-acre, 540-lot subdivision featuring its own golf course, and hiking and cross-country ski trails is filling almost exclusively with $1 million to $2 million homes. By 2000, housing starts in Truckee had jumped 50% to about 400 annually.   

The dot-com crash appears to have slowed the market, as construction of million-dollar speculative houses has dried up. But no one believes the development pressure will go away.   

"Location, location, location," said Barbara Green, a Nevada County supervisor and Truckee real estate agent. "We are so close to Lake Tahoe - only 15 miles away. Yet we are on the interstate, so you can get to Reno or to Sacramento. ... It's a beautiful area and it's so much easier to build in than the [Tahoe] basin."   

The Tahoe Basin has been limited to 300 residential building permits a year since 1987, so Martis Valley has accommodated some of the pent up demand. But Placer County's Yeager is one of many who believe the Martis Valley has become its own attraction.   

"It seems to be a very popular place for development interests to pour a lot of money into," Yeager said.

Planning process expands   

In fall of 1998, Placer County began its update of the 1975 community plan, which allowed development of roughly 12,000 housing units. The demand predicted at that time never materialized, and the Placer County territory has only about 2,300 units built. But county leaders saw growth finally arriving, and they were concerned about the provision of water, sewage treatment, roads and other facilities. Supervisors authorized a review of the plan based on services, with no intent of changing land use designations unless landowners asked for downzones. Planners soon found that provision of services was not a big problem, but homeowners, environmentalists and affordable housing advocates demanded a broader discussion.   

"We thought it might be a relatively simply process because we were not going to mess with the land use," Yeager recalled. "But it has become this big land use debate."   

The preliminary draft plan released in January allows for about 7,800 housing units and some level of commercial development. Environmentalists quickly attacked the plan as insensitive to area and to community desires. The area's biggest developer supports the plan. Truckee officials are reserving judgment.    

"The plan is not a fitting vision for Martis Valley," said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch, a two-year-old environmental group formed "to protect the Sierra Nevada from irresponsible urban and resort development." Mooers pointed out that the plan calls for widening Highway 267 - the main north-south route - to four lanes, as well as construction of another bridge over the Truckee River and nearby railroad tracks, and a second four-lane arterial.    

"That has sort of sounded an alarm bell among people that this plan would really change the Martis Valley and the whole region," Mooers said. "The more people find out about this Martis Valley proposal, the more opposition seems to grow."   

Mooers and Supervisor Green both question Placer County's planning process. "It's really too bad it wasn't a regional planning process," said Green, who attended nearly every meeting of Placer County's 12-member advisory committee, made up mostly of landowners and service providers. "The plan is all in Placer County, but the Martis Valley is in two counties. The impacts are mostly on Truckee," she said.   

Placer County offered Truckee officials a seat on the advisory committee, but town officials declined because they were uneasy about participating on a "citizens committee," said Truckee Community Development Director Tony Lashbrook. Town officials and Placer County have communicated during the planning process, but the town has not had a great deal of input.   

Roger Lessman, managing partner for East West Partners Tahoe' operations, whose firm has formed a joint venture with the owners of Northstar to build out the resort's 30-year-old master plan, said the proposed community plan is good for the valley. The plan downzones some property, encourages infill, and prohibits development in scenic areas, he said. Lessman decried the "hysterics" that have arisen regarding the plan and area development.   

Some issues, though, are more than growth versus no growth. For example, Truckee officials fear that Placer County wants Truckee to provide the region's affordable housing. The draft community plan emphasizes large-lot, single family-homes and resort housing.    

"Except for a little bit at Northstar, we don't see any of those units targeted for workers," Lashbrook said. "If they have room for 5,000 housing units, some of them should be affordable."   

Yeager conceded that affordable housing is "a terrible problem." The area's median home price increased more than 50% from 1998 to 2001, and few houses are available for less than $300,000. But Placer County officials find themselves in a tough spot. In December, the Board of Supervisors approved a 96-unit, 380-bed worker housing development on about six acres at Northstar. Sierra Watch, other environmental groups and a collection of Northstar homeowners fought the proposal, saying it was the wrong site for high-density development. The homeowners have since sued the county.   

Yeager said that the county is working with a nonprofit housing developer and that planners would soon propose that all development contain an affordable housing component.    

Even though the draft community plan addresses only Placer County, it assume that Truckee will remain the area's commercial hub - a concept that no one appears to dispute. But Sierra Watch's Mooers argued that the plan's standards are so loose that up to 6 million square feet of commercial development could be built. Yeager said the county could use the sales tax revenue that retail development would generate but large-scale commercial development is neither envisioned nor appropriate.    

Placer County officials intend to release the official draft community plan this spring, followed by an environmental impact report.

New developer makes a mark   

After arriving in the Martis Valley only  few years ago, Colorado resort developer East West has become a major player. East West plans to build 2,200 units at Northstar and overhaul the resort's commercial village. It has two proposals on 1,700 acres in Truckee - Gray's Station, which would have 500 market-rate homes, 100 affordable units, a small commercial area and a golf course, and Old Greenwood, which would have 260 houses and time-share units (now called "fractional" units) along with another golf course and tennis and pool facilities. Development on the Gray's Station site was controversial for years, but East West has shrunk the retail component to reduce opposition.    

East West's Lessman said that Sierra Nevada ski resorts generally lack the amenities that have made Colorado resorts popular, year-round destinations. Most Sierra Nevada resorts built out during the 1960s and 1970s, "but the market has changed," he said. Northstar is one of the few that has land for new, up-scale facilities.   

The largest Martis Valley projects now under review by Placer County are Eaglewood, a 475-acre development of 430 homes and 40 units of employee housing, plus a golf course and small commercial village; Hopkins Ranch, an 87-home golf course development; and some of East West's development at Northstar. However, the biggest project - a new ski resort, 1,360 housing units and a commercial area - appears dead for now. Sierra Pacific Industries, which owns 8,000 acres, or one-third of the community plan area, has reportedly dropped the proposal after meeting stiff resistance from county planners because the property is in a timberland production zone.    

Truckee is also reviewing early plans for a power center on 90 acres of commercial property near the airport, a couple miles south of downtown. One major change Lashbrook has seen during his eight years as Truckee's chief planner is increased interest in attached-unit housing. In that period, the price of a vacant lot in Tahoe-Donner has increased five-fold to about $150,000, making townhouses more appealing.
  

Contacts:
Tony Lashbrook, Truckee community development department, (530) 582-7876.
Fred Yeager, Placer County planning department, (530) 889-7470.
Barbara Green, Nevada County supervisor, (530) 265-1480.
Tom Mooers, Sierra Watch, (530) 265-2849.
Roger Lessman, East West Partners, (530) 587-2222.
Martis Valley Community Plan online: http://www.placer.ca.gov/planning/martis-vcp/martis-valley-community-plan.htm