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Pact Protects a Sierra Valley

A legal settlement will result in conservation funds and limited development in an alpine meadow near Lake Tahoe.

October 02, 2006|Julie Cart | Times Staff Writer

A three-year legal battle over resort development in a spectacular alpine meadow in the Sierra Nevada has ended in a settlement that will raise up to $100 million in conservation funds and limit growth in the 45,000-acre Martis Valley, between Lake Tahoe and Truckee, Calif.

The settlement, reached in September between conservation groups and three developers, includes funds to protect the area's deer herd and endangered fish and birds. The agreement also prohibits building near streams and waterways and sets aside money and land for affordable housing.

The agreement, which calls for a nonprofit group to determine appropriate conservation projects, is seen as a model by conservation advocates and elected officials for planning in the fast-growing region. In Truckee, where the town's population of 15,000 can swell to 40,000 on weekends, the settlement was applauded.

"One of our biggest issues was that the development impacts on us were mitigated," said Truckee Mayor Beth Ingalls.

She said the agreement forced developers to downsize their ambitions and address pressing issues of traffic and affordable housing. Without a lawsuit, Ingalls said, that never would have happened.

Lake Tahoe and Truckee strictly control growth, making Martis Valley and its expanse of private land all the more attractive to developers. The valley floor was once 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.

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 last three decades. Martis Creek and other waterways are home to the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout, and the forested areas are habitat for pine marten, northern goshawk and the California spotted owl.

Tom Mooers, executive director of the conservation group Sierra Watch, said the settlement required developers to make changes to protect wildlife and habitat.

"We asked them to cluster some of the buildings together in order to keep off the most valuable resource areas -- wildlife migration corridors and creek corridors," he said.

The controversy began with an overhaul of the county's community plan for Martis Valley two years ago. The plan allows for up to 6,000 homes and nearly 1 million square feet of commercial space with hotels and shopping centers. A disparate group -- including environmentalists, wildlife biologists and the state attorney general -- called for county officials to scale back allowable development. A handful of organizations sued the county over the plan.

That case was dismissed when the developers came to terms with conservation groups a few weeks ago. Although Placer County was not a party to the settlement, county officials have been consulted.

Although the county's general plan for 6,000 new homes can still be carried out, proponents say money from the conservation fund will be used to purchase developable private property and buy out development rights. This program, they say, will have the effect of reducing growth to 3,000 homes or fewer.

"The county's plan does not change, their numbers don't change," said Stefanie Olivieri, a board member for Mountain Area Preservation Foundation, which helped negotiate the settlements. "We hope the numbers will come down through negotiation and purchase."

The conservation funds are to be raised by a transfer fee levied on each house sold within the new developments. The fee is to be levied each time a house changes hands.

Eneas Kane, chief operating officer for DMB Highlands, one of the main developers in Martis Valley, called the agreement "a win-win."

"The days when you can be in our business and simply assume that you are going to have a project approval that doesn't include a broad community outreach are over," he said. "You have to approach our business much more creatively."

The company agreed to reduce the number of units at its 2,100-acre golf resort, Martis Camp, to 653 from 726, Kane said, and move development away from Martis Creek. The company also eliminated a proposed golf course, even though the county had previously given approval.

Groups around the Sierra said the settlement could become a model for managing growth elsewhere.

"We're facing incredible population growth projections, and a lot of people see this as the model," said Joan Clayburgh, executive director of the nonprofit Sierra Nevada Alliance. "This was one of the first times that anyone looked at the cumulative picture.

"All too often it becomes one development at a time. When you look at it in that patchwork-quilt fashion, often the environment suffers."


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