Future of Tahoe ski resort stirs up lively debate

February 24, 2011 8:59:41 PM PST
A San Francisco developer hopes to turn one of the last mom and pop ski areas at Lake Tahoe into an elite resort. He says it will be good for both the environment and the economy. Critics say it's just too big. It's become a lively debate over the future of the Homewood ski area, the largest privately owned parcel in the Tahoe Basin.

Real estate doesn't get any better than this -- 1,200 acres of mountainside right smack on Lake Tahoe. And along the beach, an elegant lodge with a pier over some of the clearest water in the world. Art Chapman is president of JMA Ventures, the company that owns all of it.

"A lot of people stand where we're standing right now, and they turn around, and they are speechless," said Chapman.

But Chapman has plenty to talk about. He bought the Homewood ski area six years ago, knowing it was a challenge.

"We have lost millions of dollars since we owned it," he said.

Homewood began as a ski area in the early 1960s. It has been popular for years with Bay Area families, many of whom still own vacation homes nearby. But as other resorts upgrade, Homewood is being left behind, packed with skiers on weekends and holidays but empty the rest of the time. So change is coming.

"We're trying to replace the daily commuter, if you will, with people who will come up here and stay for a few days," said Chapman.

The company's proposal includes a high-end destination resort with a hotel and condos at the base of the ski area.

"Our vision is a very modestly sized village that was adequate to keep Homewood open in terms of attracting skiers, but didn't overwhelm the small communities and compete with them," said Chapman.

The resort would be open in both summer and winter. The company promises extensive environmental improvements, many of which are required to protect Lake Tahoe. However, a lot of local residents are skeptical.

"We don't think that the West Shore can sustain -- I hate to say it -- but a mega-resort," said Mason Overstreet with Friends of the West Shore.

Members of a group called Friends of the West Shore have been pouring over the environmental impact report on the project. They say they want Homewood revitalized, but this proposal would ruin the area's rustic character.

"Our main concerns are density of population, height, change in the groundwater runoff and especially increase in traffic," said Judi Tornese with Friends of the West Shore.

Homewood is on Highway 89 -- a two-lane road. Most of the buildings there now are one or two stories high. The new resort would have some that are four stories.

The League to Save Lake Tahoe, also known as Keep Tahoe Blue, thinks the development would hurt the environment.

"Taller buildings means you can accommodate more people. More people means more cars which means more traffic, and more traffic will degrade our air quality," said Carl Young with Keep Tahoe Blue.

The final decision will be up to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. It is a delicate balance. The agency is charged with protecting the environment, but they need developers to pay for that.

"We're not a national park. We have private development here at Tahoe," said Julie Regan with the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. "It's our goal at the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency to find harmony between the built environment and the natural environment."

A lot of Homewood's neighbors believe that balance would be best served by a smaller resort makeover. However, Chapman says he needs a certain size to make it pay, and if not, the ski resort will shut down.

"Homewood would go away and would be converted into custom lots for custom homes," said Chapman.

The planning agency says the zoning would allow that, but both sides are hoping they can work out a plan that will keep Homewood open.

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Written and produced by Jennifer Olney

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