Fight over the future of Olympic Valley: ‘We don’t need an artificial amusement park’
Bay Area News Group (TNS) February 13, 2023
Olympic Valley ski resort has an embarrassment of natural riches: towering mountains, crisp air, a graceful meadow and easy access to crystalline Lake Tahoe.
But it lacks the kind of facilities that turn a ski mountain into a global destination resort.
A controversial 94-acre development proposal in the former Squaw Valley — now known as Palisades Tahoe — seeks to change that.
The plan calls for the construction of a 90,000-square-foot indoor recreation center with options for bowling, a movie theater, a rock climbing wall, an arcade, pools, an “action river” and water slides, as well as 1,493 condo and hotel rooms, shops and restaurants — a four-season draw that would help it compete with the more upscale resorts of Vail, Park City, Whistler, Val d’Isère in France or Zermatt in Switzerland.
The project would be the valley’s biggest overhaul since the 1960 Winter Olympics came to town — and add pressure on an area that opponents say is already imperiled by wildfire risk, drought and grueling traffic.
“We don’t need an artificial amusement park. We have this incredible God-given amusement park around us,” local resident Sharon Freeman told the Placer County Planning Commission at a public hearing last month, the latest step of a decadelong effort by owner and developer Alterra Mountain Company to build the project.
While January has delivered some badly needed snow to the Sierra Nevada, climate anxiety is shifting the business model of the ski industry, which is increasingly reliant on wealthy clientele who travel long distances for extended stays.
Warmer temperatures and shorter winters driven by climate change could halve the standard ski season by 2050, according to projections by a 2017 study funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and published in the Global Environmental Change journal.
Visitors are increasingly unwilling to pay high prices for substandard or unpredictable ski conditions, say tourism experts. By improving the quality of lodging and expanding its amenities, a resort can help protect itself against weather variability. It’s a weather hedge.
Diversified activities can also broaden a resort’s appeal to non-skiers, turning a winter wonderland into a spring, summer and fall playground, they add.
Vail Mountain, one of Alterra’s chief competitors, offers a zipline, bungee trampoline, climbing wall, mini golf and a “Forest Flyer Mountain Coaster,” a roller coaster that races 3,400 feet down through trees.
“We’re envisioning our future as the true, preeminent year-round resort destination Palisades Tahoe was always meant to be,” according to Alterra. It will be built primarily on existing parking lots. The company promises to help restore Squaw Creek, add workforce housing, improve trailheads and add a new dog park, fire station, grocery store and transit center.
The region’s business community is rallying behind the project.
“The Tahoe Basin is a 100% tourist economy,” generating $5 million in tax revenue last year that supported public transit, trails, parks and beach access, added Rob Haswell of the Placer County Visitors Bureau. “This project will provide a continued and increased funding stream.”
But it’s a long-cherished landscape. Many local residents fear that the supersized faux-Bavarian village — which could draw 300,000 visitors a year, according to planning documents — will mean living with 25 years of construction, diminished views, increased traffic, air pollution within the Tahoe basin and a decline in the clarity of Lake Tahoe. It’s a development scheme far out of scale with anything that currently exists in North Tahoe, they say.
“The most beautiful valley the eye of man has ever beheld,” wrote Placer County Surveyor Thomas A. Young in 1856, upon his arrival. For years, the only entry to the valley was across a sagging pine log bridge, with its decking reinforced by white fir branches.
When founded in 1949, Squaw Valley Ski Resort was modest, with just one chairlift, two rope tows and 50 hotel rooms. Its selection as the site of the 1960 Olympic Games sparked exponential growth.
But it has remained primarily a place for weekend skiers, many from the Bay Area.
Plans for expansion were the inspiration behind its 2011 purchase by the Denver-based private equity firm KSL Capital Partners, owner of Alterra and a growing collection of other high-end resorts, such as the Grand Wailea Resort Hotel & Spa in Maui and the historic Hotel del Coronado in San Diego.
“We’ve truly found a crown jewel,” KSL’s Eric Resnick told The Denver Post, citing the resort’s “great growth potential.”
The firm’s proposal met with instant opposition.
“Colorado: Don’t mess with our California mountains,” warned Tom Mooers, executive director of the environmental group Sierra Watch, which organized brigades of protesters in purple “Keep Squaw True” T-shirts for Placer County meetings. “We hold our Sierra Nevada mountains and its incredible places in high regard. And we defend them with great ferocity.”
In response to opposition and litigation, the company has downsized the plan, reducing the expansion area by 20 acres and cutting 700 bedrooms. It also shrunk a proposed 132,000-square-foot aquatic park, described by Sierra Watch as a mashup of “North Korean severity, Vegas excess, and Disney surrealism.”
The plan’s most-recent setback was last July, when the Placer County Superior Court ruled in favor of environmentalists, requiring that the county rescind its earlier approvals and revise four sections of the Environmental Impact Report.
But now the proposal is back on the table, with offers of increased transit service and better traffic control. At a Jan. 19 public hearing, county planning officials endorsed the revised report. This summer, they predicted, they’ll likely forward the plan to the county’s Board of Supervisors for approval.
Distressed residents still see the current proposal as too much for Olympic Valley and urged greater community involvement in a more modest plan. They don’t care about fancy restaurants or retail shops. Rather than swim in an indoor waterpark, they’d rather jump in Lake Tahoe or float in the Truckee River. The pandemic triggered an influx of work-from-home residents, creating traffic; this will add more. And in the event of a wildfire, emergency evacuation depends on one narrow road.
“People do want to see Olympic Valley revitalized,” Mooers said. “We just want to see it done in a way that respects the values of our mountains because Tahoe deserves no less.”