Court Decision in Martis Valley West Case

Establishes a New Legal Precedent, Say Conservation Groups

A long-awaited victory for conservation groups came in mid-February when California’s 3rd District Court of Appeals found that the 2016 approval of development in Martis Valley overlooked the project’s impact on Lake Tahoe. Conservationists are hopeful that this decision sets a new precedent for development projects in the Tahoe region.

“We want to create legal precedent that you can’t have these outside basin projects create all of their impacts on the Lake Tahoe Basin and do nothing to mitigate it,” said Alexis Ollar, executive director of Mountain Area Preservation, one of three groups involved in the litigation process.

Alexis Ollar, executive director of Mountain Area Preservation, in an area overlooking Martis Valley on March 17, 2022. Mountain Area Preservation would like to purchase the land in question for conservation. (Photo by Zac Visco/Deep Indigo Collective for The Sierra Nevada Ally)

The development proposal included construction of a gated community with 760 luxury homes near a ridgeline in the Martis Valley between Highway 267 and Northstar, just outside the Tahoe Basin. Because the project is not within the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) boundary, the developer and landowner, Sierra Pacific Industries, did not include the environmental mitigation measures that would otherwise be required to protect the lake, according to conservationists.

A view from Brockway Summit. (Photo courtesy of Sierra Watch)

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) required Placer County to create an environmental impact report to disclose the full effect on the Tahoe region, including the clarity and quality of the lake. However, conservation groups claim the county and the developer did not disclose the full impact of the development. 

“[The developer] said there would be no impact to Lake Tahoe while discounting the fact that everything would be going to Tahoe,” Ollar said. “Water drains from ridgelines, so the pollutants from the development would go to both the Lake Tahoe Watershed and the Martis Valley Watershed.”

Mountain Area Preservation, Sierra Watch, and League to Save Lake Tahoe were co-petitioners in the legal challenge against the 2016 approvals of the project, doled out by the Placer County Board of Supervisors. Some of their major concerns included the development’s high fire risk and the increase in car traffic 760 new homes would bring. 

By the estimates of the environmental impact report, the project would have added 1,400 peak day vehicle trips into the Tahoe Basin. Tailpipe emissions and road sediment were cited by League to Save Lake Tahoe as pollutant factors that posed the biggest risks to the lake. 

In a hearing in December, Sierra Watch cited a precedent established in a different court decision in August of 2021 against the proposed Alterra development in Olympic Valley. This project would have included the construction of a water park at the outer edge of the Tahoe Basin. According to Sierra Watch, this would have contributed to Tahoe’s car traffic and made evacuation in the event of a wildfire more challenging.

“The decision in August was so important because it applied this new precedent that decision makers have to consider impacts on Lake Tahoe for projects, even if they’re proposed for outside of the basin,” said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch. 

At the hearing in December, Sierra Watch argued that this same precedent should be applied to the Martis Valley West decision. The court agreed.

“I am hopeful that this new precedent serves as a deterrent to speculative developers that they can’t just get away with whatever they want to propose as long as it’s outside the basin,” Mooers said. “I also hope it serves as a reminder to decision-makers that they can’t just ignore impacts on Lake Tahoe.” 

The Placer County environmental impact report estimated an added 1,400 peak day vehicle trips into the Tahoe Basin if the development were built. Conservation groups cited tailpipe emissions, road sediment and wildlife evacuations as significant concerns. View of Highway 267 in Martis Valley on March 17, 2022. (Photo by Zac Visco/Deep Indigo Collective for The Sierra Nevada Ally)

The decision made in February doesn’t necessarily mark the end of the project, according to Darcie Goodman Collins, CEO of League to Save Lake Tahoe. 

“The project proponents could come back with another project that addresses [impacts to the lake],” Collins said.

Conservation groups are still looking forward to what could be next for the Martis Valley area. The groups’ ultimate goal is to purchase the land for conservation.

“We’re not against development,” said Ollar. “We just don’t think it makes sense in this area high up on a hill with no infrastructure and high fire danger.” 

The developer has until the end of March to appeal the February decision. 

Claire Carlson writes about conservation and the environment for Sierra Nevada Ally and for various other publications.  She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nevada, Reno in International Affairs and a master’s from the University of Montana in Environmental Studies, where she focused on environmental writing. Support her work for the Sierra Nevada Ally.

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