Placer County didn't adequately consider fire risk of massive Tahoe development, judge rules

Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch, scans Martis Valley from a fire lookout.
Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch, scans Martis Valley from a fire lookout. lsterling@sacbee.com

A Placer Superior Court judge has at least temporarily stopped a controversial development north of Lake Tahoe that would have allowed 760 new homes in a high-severity fire area.

Judge Michael W. Jones ruled that Placer County failed to adequately address emergency evacuations in the area, especially in light of its high risk for fire. The decision was a partial victory for three environmental groups who sought to overturn the county's 2016 environmental impact review of Martis Valley West, a 7,428-acre project straddling Highway 267 five miles southeast of Truckee.

The largely forested land, owned by Sierra Pacific Industries, abuts the northern edge of the Tahoe Basin and takes in a section of the Tahoe Rim Trail. The project is designed to include more than six acres of retail stores, restaurants, offices and sports equipment rentals as well as townhouses, cabins, condominiums and up to 500 single-family homes on over 1,000 acres.

In a Nov. 10 petition, the League to Save Lake Tahoe argued the development violates six areas of the state's Environmental Quality Act that include biological resources and traffic, which could involve 1,000 new automobile trips per day. Jones found no merit in these arguments, and he rejected the League's contention that the county's environmental document is flawed because it omits any discussion of impacts on Lake Tahoe Basin, which is outside the proposed development.

The plaintiffs – Mountain Area Preservation Foundation and Sierra Watch along with the League – also alleged that the development's approval violated the state's Timber Productivity Act, designed to encourage long-term investment in forest resources. The judge rejected the argument that Placer County supervisors improperly rezoned land from timber production zone to allow the development.

His decision to set aside the county's environmental document was based on fire danger. The report defines the area as a very high fire hazard severity zone designated by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. But then the document "fails to present a sufficient analysis" to address the impacts of the development, Jones said in his March 12 decision.

The ruling has ramifications for high-fire danger areas statewide, said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch, an environmental organization and one of the three plaintiffs. It recognizes the mistakes of approving developments that put people at increased risk of fire, he said.

"These are lessons learned the hard way in places like Sonoma County," Mooers said.

Clayton Cook, deputy counsel for Placer County, said the county will continue to work on the issue of emergency fire evacuations with the community and the developers, Mountainside Partners and MVWP Development. "Overall, we believe the ruling largely affirms Placer County’s thorough and diligent preparation of the project’s Environmental Impact Report," Cook said.