Ken Garcia: High density in high-altitude Sierras is now highly exclusive

TRUCKEE — If not for the power of judicial intervention, it would be hard to imagine how much development would be taking place in this scenic Alpine wonderland.

As it is, the level of building near here is on such a scale that a new word has been introduced to the great outdoors — high density.

In recent years, the 45,000-acre forested expanse along Highway 267 known as the Martis Valley has been the subject of one of the fiercest development battles in Northern California. After a few key court rulings, the primary developer of several gated resorts planned for the area signed an agreement with local conservation groups to scale back the level of housing units in return for paying more than $50 for open-space protection, habitat management and work force housing.

That agreement allowed both sides to claim victory in the lengthy court fight, but it’s a victory that has — quite literally, come at a very steep price.

As any recent vacationers to this area can tell you if you’re looking to rent or buy in the booming real estate market along this corridor leading to North Lake Tahoe, be prepared for the sticker shock.

The developer of the Northstar complex here along the Highway 267 corridor is adding $3 billion worth of real estate over the next few years, and as construction of the first phase ends it’s clear the company intends to reap its profit one multimillion-dollar luxury condominium at a time.

A new one-bedroom, one-bath condominium at Northstar’s Iron Horse Lodge — at all of 800 square feet — has an asking price of $825,000. And that’s not even the high-end building. At the neighboring lodge, called Great Bear, the cheapest three-bedroom condominium comes in at a cool $2.9 million.

To sit in the lap of luxury is to have the same level of personal service as one might find at a five-star hotel — “right down to havinga private chef cook you dinner,’’ as one sales associate told me this week. But even longtime Bay Area and Tahoe residents are often shocked at how high high-end developments are rising.

“The scale of the development is pretty stunning and it just goes to show how much a difference we were able to make by getting the developer to compromise,’’ said Stefanie Olivieri, a board member of Sierra Watch, the conservation group that filed the initial lawsuit of the Martis Valley development plan. “I’m still hopeful that we’ll be able to cut the development rights bestowed on the area because it’s going to be critically important for the long-term effects on air quality, affordable housing and the overall quality of life here.’’

Yet the building is taking place at such a rapid rate it’s easy to forget that it was only three short years ago when the Placer County Board of Supervisors approved a plan that would allow the construction of up to 8,600 new homes in this pristine valley — almost all of them in exclusive resort communities. That would have been enough homes for up to 20,000 people, or more than three times the number of residents in the historic former mill town of Truckee.

It was only after officials in the town of Truckee joined forces with the environmental groups and filed suit that brakes on the wide-scale development proposal began to be applied. A judge ruled that the county’s community plan for the area failed to adequately address the numerous environmental impacts from the proposed building boom. And that led the developer, East West Partners Tahoe, to agree to a series of compromises, including giving open-space trusts millions to buy land in the valley and the reduce the amount of sprawl in the developments.

Still, there’s no getting around just how big some of the resorts will be now that in the new vernacular of vacation living, you need enough acreage to include a private, gated golf course. Northstar alone plans to double the acreage of its ski runs to 4,800 acres over the next decade, including a mountain-side Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Yet the building plans for the nearby Siller Ranch and Hopkins Ranch resort developments are based on a very similar jet-set lifestyle.

Planning by compromise, development by development, may not be the best way to go, but in this part of the Sierras, that’s been the only way. It’s changing the look and feel of one of the best-known Bay Area vacation getaways, but unless you’re a multimillionaire, it may not be for the better.

Call it an image makeover, on a grand Sierra scale — one that comes with an exclusive club membership.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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