Conflicting groups spar over 'Sierra sprawl'

LAKE TAHOE AREA, CA

Almost 1,000 new homes are planned for Royal Gorge, a cross-country ski area at Donner Summit, west of Truckee. The developers call it a conservation community, but critics say it could destroy some of the Sierra's most precious open space.

If you love the outdoors, Donner Summit has it all -- mountains, stunning lakes and meadows. In winter, there's spectacular snowboarding and skiing. In summer, it's a paradise for hikers, bicycle riders, and anyone who just wants to take it easy.

"This always has been a haven for weekenders and summertime vacation homes for families from the bay area," says developer Kirk Syme.

Three years ago, Bay Area developer Kirk Syme and a partner bought 3,000 acres on Donner Summit. Their property includes Royal Gorge, the largest cross-country ski area in North America, which has been running for almost 40 years. But Syme says it doesn't attract enough people to make a profit so he wants to build a new development on the property. "We are all about sort of sharing the land with some additional families," says Syme.

There are already about 850 homes on nearby property. The proposed development would more than double that. It would include single family homes, condos and timeshares, along with some shops and restaurants. The cross-country ski area would keep operating. At least 75 percent of the land would stay open space.

"We think we've found the right balance, developing in the areas that are most appropriate for development and staying out of those areas that are most appropriate for preservation," says Syme.

But environmental groups think the plan is way too big.

"Almost anywhere you go on Donner Summit right now, you can point to an area that's threatened with overdevelopment," says Tom Mooers of Sierra Watch, an organization trying to stop what some call 'Sierra sprawl.' "Right here over my shoulder is the area proposed for a semi-private new ski resort with condos, hotels, commercial, some sort of ski whether cross-country or downhill facilities. So if we were standing here and the development had already taken place, we'd be impacted by a lot of noise, crowds, traffic. "

The community around Royal Gorge has a small-town feel. It's the kind of place where a dog can still drop by the general store and get a biscuit. Pete Hendrix, who works at the Soda Springs General Store, is against the development.

"I think it's a bad idea. Basically the locals like to keep the community small," says Hendrix.

Others believe development will bring cash to struggling businesses.

"We need more people here more of the time, and it needs to be more of a year-round operation. It's highly seasonal at this point," says resident Al Lebel.

Gary Schmitt runs a cross-country ski shop. He supports the development because he's afraid, without it, the Royal Gorge ski area may close.

"They can use the income from housing to keep going and then you have a captive audience of people who are very interested in the activities you are providing," says Schmitt.

But many homeowners don't like the proposals they've heard so far.

"I think we will lose more than we gain if their development is in the scale they propose right now, but we're not opposed to some development that's appropriate. That's fine. But it just needs not to destroy what's already here," says Cliff Busby, of Serene Lakes Homeowners Association.

There are still a lot of questions about water supply, sewage disposal and traffic. The developers are working on their official building application and aren't sure when it will ready.

Norm Sayler, who's lived in the area for 50 years, believes the time for development is now.

"They aren't [going to] use but a very small portion of the land, and they are [going to] keep a lot of it open. And they've been very up front in telling the community what they wanted to do," says Sayler.

But environmentalists are skeptical, so before any construction begins, they want a comprehensive plan for all of Donner Summit, not just the Royal Gorge project.

"Is it going to be carved up and divided into suburban style and condo development or is it going to be permanently protected?" asks Mooers.

The final decision on the development will eventually be up to officials in Placer County.

RELATED LINKS:

Information about the proposed development:
>> http://www.royalgorgefuture.com/

Groups opposed to development:

Sierra Watch:
>> http://sierrawatch.webfactional.com/

Save Donner Summit:
>> http://savedonnersummit.org/

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.

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