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Mammoth makeover

MAMMOTH LAKES -- As soon as he finished college, Rich Ronning headed to this mountain hamlet to become a "ski bum."

He started a small business with a snowplow and front loader. But skiing always came first.

He would shut down his business -- like most everyone else in town -- and head to the slopes after every big snowstorm.

Those carefree days are all but gone. The rising cost of living has kept Ronning and his neighbors off the slopes and on the job where they say they're working harder than ever before.

"We're losing our community," Ronning said. "Everybody has to work all the time. I guess that comes with progress."

Progress has come to Mammoth Lakes in a big way in the seven years since the Vancouver-based Intrawest real estate firm unveiled its plans to turn this Central California winter weekend getaway into a year-round destination resort.

Ski Magazine has declared Intrawest's $1 billion plan to update Mammoth Mountain's operations and develop 240 acres at its base the "biggest resort makeover in the history of skiing."

Property values have tripled in four years, and some owners have cashed in.

But young adults hoping to become ski bums today can't afford to live here. And environmental activists warn that the eastern Sierra's vast open spaces could fall victim to the traffic jams, air pollution and sprawl that's overrun other ski resorts.

Several environmental organizations and the state attorney general have sued over the town's plan to expand its dinky airport to eventually accommodate 200,000 passengers a year.

"We are a little town at 8,200 feet with lots of little lakes and great views," said retired aerospace worker John Walter. "I just hate to see it turned into golf courses and high-rises. I'm afraid we will kill off the resource."

Until now, Mammoth's remote location and history had discouraged the growth seen on the western side of the Sierra Nevada.

Government owns more than 90 percent of the land here, and Los Angeles bought up most of the water rights in the early 1900s to supply its thirsty residents.

Skiing became popular in the region in the 1930s, when young entrepreneurs set up temporary rope tows on the mountainsides.

One of those entrepreneurs was Dave McCoy, a snow surveyor for Los Angeles who knew where to find the best snowpack. In 1953, the Forest Service gave him a permit to operate permanently on Mammoth Mountain, if he would develop a ski resort there.

McCoy turned the 3,500 acres of mountainous terrain into the country's No. 1 ski destination, drawing nearly 1.6 million skier visits at its peak in 1986.

By the early 1990s -- after a recession, a series of small earthquakes and a prolonged drought -- skier visits had dropped to about 600,000 a year, and a third of the town's businesses were shut down.

"We were desperate to keep our community viable," Rusty Gregory, Mammoth Mountain's chief executive officer, said.

Residents adopted a plan for the city in 1992 that called for a new downtown and developing year-round tourism to fill up the beds left empty except for peak ski times.

Gregory said McCoy and he sought out Intrawest to carry out the town's vision because the company was known for its ski resort village developments.

Intrawest bought 58 percent of Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort and June Mountain Ski Resort about 20 miles north. It began construction on the first of three developments at Mammoth Mountain's base in 1998.

It expanded an existing golf course to create its Sierra Star development with 70 luxury town houses.

It built Juniper Springs, a ski-in, ski-out development of 251 condominiums and 36 town houses at the base of a new six-passenger chairlift.

Now, it's building The Village at Mammoth, an Americanized version of European ski villages featuring a Starbucks, paint-your-own-ceramic shops and gourmet chocolates on the first floor. Atop the shops and restaurants will be turn-key condominiums with prices ranging from $344,900 to $1.25 million.

Eventually, Intrawest plans to link the three developments to the mountain and one another with a gondola system.

"Mammoth is a town that has no heart," said Doug Oglivy, Intrawest's regional vice president. "It is just classic ... sprawl, so we are going back in and putting in the core it's always needed."

He said these developments are the realization of the town's vision in 1992.

Some participants in the planning process see it differently: They never expected property values to skyrocket as they have or for a single developer to play such a large role.

Andrea Mead Lawrence, a former Mono County supervisor, said the town wanted to retain its character and not become another Intrawest "theme park" for the wealthy.

"You can't stop change," she said. "But you can give it direction."

Lawrence, who won two gold medals in skiing at the 1952 Olympics, said lower-income employees are moving to towns 30 minutes to an hour away because they can't afford to live in Mammoth.

The town, Intrawest, Mammoth Mountain and other businesses are developing affordable housing. But city officials said they wished they'd started before so many people were priced out of the market.

Hal Clifford, author of a book critical of Intrawest and other ski resort developers, predicts mountain communities could end up with empty condominiums and overbuilt ski operations as the baby boomers grow too old for the sport.

Mammoth hopes to avoid that possibility by attracting tourists from around the country and the globe. The key to this strategy is the expansion of Mammoth Lakes' noncommercial airport to accommodate large jet aircraft.

The Federal Aviation Administration has determined the increased air traffic wouldn't cause significant harm to the environment and agreed to a $20 million grant to help pay for it.

Environmental groups and state Attorney General Bill Lockyer sued last fall, urging the court to order further environmental reviews. They said the expansion could lead to more growth and harm this "ecologically fragile" region that includes Yosemite National Park, Mono Lake and two wilderness areas.

"Before you suddenly increase visitation to what is now a quiet town in the middle of an important natural resource area, you need to see what the consequences are," said Trent Orr, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of EarthJustice.

Jim Edmondson, CalTrout's Southern California manager, said new development could suck up groundwater and harm some of the state's best trout streams.

Tom Smith, Mammoth Community Water District president, said the town has secured enough water to weather up to three drought years in a row. At that point, though, he said Mammoth might have to tap into Dry Creek, a popular trout stream.

Mammoth Lakes Mayor Rick Wood tried to quiet fears about sprawl by pointing out that new construction is limited to a 4-square-mile area of the town.

"I find it absurd to say we are bent on destroying that which we have in Mammoth when all of us came here because of what we have in Mammoth," he said.

Owen Maloy, the local Sierra Club representative, said developers could go outside the city limits to buy land.

"Only 5 percent of the county's land is privately owned," he said. "But that is 150 square miles."

He also said Los Angeles could sell some of its land and retain the water rights it needs. Or the Forest Service could trade land, as it has before.

The mayor said such concerns come from only a handful of local residents who are afraid of change coming to "one of the last great places on earth."

"I share the fear," Wood said. "I think to myself what is Mammoth Lakes going to be in 10 years? Am I going to want to live here? And then, I think, I am really going to want to live here."