From: Scott Sonner, Associated Press
Published May 16, 2005 12:00 AM

California Judge Sides with Conservationists Opposed to Building Thousands of Homes Near Tahoe

RENO, Nev. — A judge has sided with conservationists trying to block construction of thousands of homes north of Lake Tahoe, saying a local development plan "builds in opportunities to create environmental mischief" and violates California law.


The judge ordered Placer County to suspend all activities under the 2003 Martis Valley Community Plan and set aside the environmental reviews used to approve plans for construction of at least 6,000 homes in the valley southeast of Truckee, Calif.


"Of particular concern is the impact which the project will have upon traffic and air quality impacts within the Tahoe Basin," California Superior Court Judge James Garbolino wrote in a ruling Thursday in Auburn, Calif. "One must not lose sight of the fragile nature of the area under discussion."


It is "a critically important area for wildlife, habitat and water resources," Garbolino wrote in his opinion.


Several environmental groups filed a lawsuit in January 2004 to overturn the community plan, arguing it failed to adequately analyze potential impacts on wildlife habitat, water resources, sewer capabilities, traffic congestion and air quality.


"This is a sweeping legal victory for anyone committed to a better future for the Tahoe-Truckee region," Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said Friday in a telephone interview.


The town of Truckee, League to Save Lake Tahoe, Sierra Club, National Audubon Society, Sierra Nevada Alliance and Defenders of Wildlife are among others who have argued against the plan.


They say the area can handle only about 3,000 new homes; the Martis Valley blueprint would allow for up to 19,000.


The county and developers maintain zoning ordinances and other restrictions effectively limit construction to about 8,600 new homes, and that the environmental reviews adequately represent the potential impacts of development of that size.


But Garbolino said the zoning ordinances can be changed over time and that the potential impacts should be analyzed based on maximum development allowed under the community plan.


He said the county "left the door open to increases in both residential and commercial development" consistent with the community plan, but "beyond the scope of the development" described in the formal environmental impact review.


Placer County "respectfully disagrees with some of the legal and factual conclusions made by Judge Garbolino," said Rick Crabtree, a lawyer representing the county.


"The county believes that it engaged in an extensive good faith analysis to determine the likely impacts" of the plan, he said. He said the board won't discuss the possibility of an appeal before its next regular meeting May 24.


Mooers said conservationists have reached agreement with developers for construction of about 2,000 units in the area that would not harm the environment.


The conservation groups continue to oppose another 1,000 homes that the county had approved under the community plan. Another 2,000 or so units are envisioned as part of the community plan but not yet specifically proposed as formal projects; those will be frozen under the ruling.


Officials for developer DMB Highlands in Truckee did not immediately return telephone messages seeking comment. Ron Parr of DMB Highlands has said before his company had met the requirements of state and county law, and plans to leave 80 percent of the 2,177 acres in its natural vegetation.


Source: Associated Press


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