Judge won’t punish conservationists in Tahoe ski resort suit
RENO, Nev. (AP) — The owners of a Lake Tahoe ski resort in a legal battle with an environmental group over a redevelopment project have failed to persuade a California judge to penalize the conservationists with an order to pay more than $225,000 in attorney bills.
Placer County Judge Michael Jones ruled in August against Sierra Watch’s claim the county violated public meeting laws when it approved Alterra Mountain Co.’s expansion at Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows near Tahoe City, California.
Squaw Valley President Ron Cohen argued the lawsuit was a frivolous attempt to “gum up the works for years” and urged the judge to sanction the nonprofit group to collect $226,893 in attorney fees as punishment.
The Sierra Sun first reported last week the judge denied the request for sanctions, ruling the plaintiff’s case was not frivolous “or totally meritless.”
Sierra Watch is appealing to the California Court of Appeals seeking to overturn the judge’s earlier ruling that the alleged violation of public meeting laws didn’t warrant freezing the overall development project.
Sierra Watch Executive Director Tom Mooers said Alterra’s bid for sanctions was an attempt to “harass a local nonprofit and intimidate the public.”
“For years what we’ve seen from Alterra has been a consistent attempt to steamroll Squaw Valley and secure as much development as they can,” he said in a statement emailed Tuesday to The Associated Press.
Cohen denied the motion was an effort “to silence them.” Rather, it was intended “to get the community to start talking about how we move forward.”
“Let’s work together here. These fights don’t result in wins for anyone,” he told the Sun.
Squaw Valley hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics. Alterra wants to build a series of high-rise condo hotels and a 90,000-square-foot indoor waterpark opponents say would take 25 years to construct and add thousands of car trips to Lake Tahoe’s already crowded roads.
In August, Jones ruled against Sierra Watch’s lawsuit claiming the county had violated California’s Brown Act when approving the redevelopment project. The act ensures the public’s right to participate in the government’s decision-making process.
Sierra Watch said a memo announcing Squaw Valley had agreed to pay $440,000 to the Tahoe Regional Planning Association for an air quality mitigation fee was not available to the public 72 hours before the Nov. 15, 2016, meeting where the project was approved.
The memo wasn’t emailed to the county Board of Supervisors until 5:36 p.m. Nov. 14, the complaint stated. A copy of the memo was placed at the board clerk’s office in Auburn, California, and wasn’t available to the public during the next day’s normal business hours.
Jones ruled Placer County wasn’t a party to the fee agreement. He also ruled the agreement wasn’t significant enough to require notice in a public agenda.
The conservationists asked the appellate court to revisit the issue.
“Putting the document in a closed and locked building after normal business hours the night before the hearing does not fulfill the purposes of the Brown Act to promote open government,” the group wrote in an Oct. 1 appeal notice.