Homewood, CA – Both sides are claiming victory following a judge’s ruling on Friday in a lawsuit to block a planned expansion that would transform Homewood ski resort at Lake Tahoe in California into an overnight winter resort destination.
U.S. District Court Judge William Shubb ruled in Sacramento that Placer County and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) improperly analyzed the feasibility of building a smaller facility that would reduce the maximum number of residential units and hotel rooms allowed from 336 to 284. His order issued on Friday calls for further study of the smaller plan.
The lawsuit filed by the Tahoe Area Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore, as well as local community and unified conservation organizations, called for the smaller construction project. These groups hailed the court ruling as a vindication of their efforts to protect the beauty and clarity of the scenic lake.
“This decision is yet another reminder that the agencies entrusted with protecting beautiful Lake Tahoe, which has already suffered so much from runaway development, must not continue to allow private gain at the Lake’s expense,” said Wendy Park, an attorney with Earthjustice, the public interest law firm that represented the environmental groups.
In his ruling Shubb rejected the developer’s claim that it would lose money if it reduced the size of the planned resort. He noted that the combined Environmental Impact Report and Environmental Impact Statement (EIR-EIS) failed to consider all streams of income, including condominium and hotel revenues.
“The EIR-EIS misleads the public by suggesting that [ski lift] ticket sales revenue is the only relevant factor in assessing the financial viability of Homewood…” the judge wrote. He ruled that no construction could begin until a “legally adequate” EIR-EIS that properly considered a scaled-down project had been prepared and circulated.
Commenting on the decision, Ron Grassi of the Sierra Club said, “Fortunately for the public, the Judge agreed that the developer provided an incomplete financial picture of a smaller-sized and less harmful project, so that it was never given a fair chance. Rather than relying simply on the developer’s paid consultant, the County and TRPA should have done their own independent analysis. A multi-million dollar development doesn’t have to be huge to be successful.”
Homewood’s owner, San Francisco-based JMA Ventures, was nonetheless satisfied with Shubb’s decision.
“Friday’s ruling by Judge William Shubb on the EIS/EIR was a crucial step in the ongoing process to transform Homewood Mountain Resort into an economically viable and environmentally friendly destination,” the company said in a prepared statement provided to First Tracks!! Online. “The ruling centered on a few major points of dispute, and of these issues, Judge Shubb ruled in favor of JMA on the vast majority, eliminating them from further dispute.”
In particular, JMA asserts that the plaintiffs lost their arguments that the project did not comply with TRPA rules concerning land coverage, and that TRPA and Placer County had not done enough to address air quality in the region. Judge Shubb ruled TRPA and the County had complied with the Compact and the California Environmental Quality Act in addressing air quality.
The plaintiffs argued the EIR/EIS had not done enough to analyze noise impacts during construction and from expanded snowmaking. Judge Shubb rejected both of these arguments, JMA points out, as well as the plaintiffs’ position that the EIR/EIS should have analyzed more alternatives.
“In the ruling, Judge Shubb identified one problem with the decision by TRPA and the County to approve the project,” JMA’s statement continued. “The EIR/EIS had analyzed a ‘reduced scale’ alternative – an alternative plan that reduced the proposed overnight accommodations in Homewood’s redevelopment. When they approved the project, TRPA and the County rejected that alternative as economically infeasible, in that it would not generate sufficient revenue to make the ski resort economically viable. Judge Shubb ruled that TRPA and the County did not have enough evidence to reach this conclusion.”
With his ruling, Shubb sent the matter back to the agencies to either reconsider this conclusion, or to bolster the record concerning the infeasibility of the smaller project.
“We are very appreciative of the detailed and comprehensive nature of Judge Shubb’s opinion and while we understand we will need to update a small component of the economic analysis provided to TRPA and the County, the Judge’s denial of all the other issues raised by the plaintiffs provides a clear roadmap for the Homewood project to move forward,” said Art Chapman, Chairman of JMA. “Based on today’s statement by the plaintiffs on the ruling, we assume they will similarly respect Judge Shubb’s ruling and there will be no further appeals.”
Chapman added that “the ruling does nothing to undermine JMA’s resolve to redevelop Homewood into the charming, environmentally sensitive, viable project it has the potential to be.”
TRPA approved the project, which called for hundreds of new condos and hotel rooms, in December 2011. The Agency passed special amendments for Homewood to waive or loosen restrictions on building height, residential density, and commercial development. Last December, TRPA approved a controversial new Regional Plan that delegates much of its environmental protection duties back to local jurisdictions for enforcement. The Plan also raises the cap on new residential and commercial units, increases building height limits, allows more and larger paved areas, and expands the urban boundary, significantly expanding the potential for new development within the region.