By Scott Sonner
OLYMPIC VALLEY, Calif. — Conservationists trying to block expansion of the Lake Tahoe ski resort that hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics say the developer is trying to hide the impacts of the project on the pristine mountain environment.
In legal action, the group Sierra Watch also cited a dramatic traffic increase that could cause dangerous delays during a wildfire evacuation of Squaw Valley in California.
Tom Mooers, head of the group suing the resort and its Denver-based owner, Alterra Mountain Co., says it would take nearly 11 hours to evacuate via the single access road during a wildfire.
Sierra Watch calls it a “very high fire hazard severity zone” with an extremely congested escape route.
The group has appealed a court ruling that upheld approval of the project by Placer County, which concluded any potential harm could be offset. The county’s environmental review concluded the expansion would add an average of 1,353 daily car trips and 2,800 peak-day trips.
Sierra Watch says most impacts on noise, water and air quality would result from increased traffic on a state highway through a narrow river canyon connecting Interstate 80 at Truckee to Lake Tahoe and on an access road to the resort in Olympic Valley.
“Scientists agree such vehicle travel results in the deposition of pollutants and finely crushed sediment into Lake Tahoe, threatening its water quality and clarity,” Sierra Watch lawyers said.
Squaw Valley officials say they worked hard to appease critics before Placer County approved the expansion in 2016. They said they scaled back the initial plan for 3,554 bedrooms to 1,493.
Lawyers for Squaw Valley say 2.9 hours are currently needed to evacuate the area and that could grow to 5 to 6.5 hours under most scenarios.
The legal action by Sierra Watch says developers are attempting to downplay concerns about gridlock by emphasizing an emergency response plan that partly relies on a shelter-in-place strategy.
“Shelter-in-place is not an effective public safety plan. It’s what you do when you can’t get out,” Mooers said. “That’s not planning for disaster; that’s planning a disaster.”
Squaw Valley contends that opponents have exaggerated the area’s designation as a high fire severity zone and noted the evacuation area is mostly a paved parking lot long identified by local fire officials as one of the safest places to seek refuge.
“Surrounding terrain consists mainly of ski runs and bare rocks,” a company court filing said about fire danger.
Sierra Watch calls that “revisionist geography,” pointing to developer documents stating the project is surrounded by forest.
“The actual risk … is not what this designation suggests,” the company says in court documents. “Appellant scoffs at shelter-inplace as `cryptic’ and ineffective but cites no expert evidence supporting this view.”
The developer says most traffic congestion occurs in winter — “when skiers are visiting the site, inclement weather disrupts traffic, and, to state the obvious, wildland fire risk is zero.”
Squaw Valley Fire Chief Pete Bansen said the few fires that have occurred over the years were small and quickly extinguished. He said mass evacuation is “very, very, very unlikely.”
A 2014 blaze came within six miles of the valley and showed the system works, Bansen said.
Sierra Watch pointed out, however, that a triathlon was cancelled several minutes before start time due to poor air quality.
“This incident demonstrates the difficulty in timely extracting large numbers of people from the project area in an emergency,” the group said.