Environmentalists Sue To Stop Sierra Development

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Environmentalists filed a lawsuit Friday to try to block construction of more than 6,000 homes near Lake Tahoe, one of the biggest proposed developments in the Sierra in decades.

The Sierra Club, Sierra Watch, League to Save Lake Tahoe and others said the project in the Martis Valley between the lake and Truckee, Calif., will destroy thousands of acres of wildlife habitat and increase air and water pollution.

"It is a threat to everything we love about Lake Tahoe," said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch based in Nevada City, Calif.

The lawsuit filed in Placer County Superior Court against the county's Board of Supervisors accuses the panel of ignoring the potential effects on the area in violation of state environmental and zoning laws. It asks the court to set aside the county's development plan and issue a temporary restraining order and subsequent injunctions to stop development in Martis Valley.

Along with the housing developments, the long-debated growth blueprint covering about 25,000 acres along California Highway 267 allows new golf courses, restaurants and 600,000 square feet of stores - some within five miles of Lake Tahoe.

"The Board of Supervisors has basically rubber-stamped one of the largest development projects we've ever seen in the region," said Eric Antebi, national spokesman for the Sierra Club in San Francisco.

Rochelle Nason, executive director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe said the proposed development is a tremendous threat to the 193-square-mile lake.

"This lawsuit is critical to the ongoing fight to keep Tahoe blue," she said.

Known for its cobalt blue and azure hues, Lake Tahoe straddles the Nevada-California line, 6,220 feet up in the Sierra Nevada, and contains enough water to cover California to a depth of 14.5 inches.

In recent years, scientists have warned that algae growth spurred by sedimentation and other pollution, including car exhaust, threatens to turn Lake Tahoe's waters green. Development around the lake has caused Tahoe's clarity to decline from a depth of about 100 feet to 60 feet over the past 40 years.

In addition to the threat to the lake's clarity, Mooers said the tens of thousands of additional daily car trips will clog area roads.

"People who want to visit to get away from the pavement and traffic and crowds in the Bay Area or Reno or wherever will get to Tahoe and find they are in the same mess," Mooers said.

County officials and developers said the lawsuit had been expected.

"The county's legal counsel feels very strongly the county has complied with the law and that we will win the lawsuit," Placer County spokeswoman Anita Yoder said from Auburn, Calif.

Roger Lessman, managing partner of Colorado-based East-West Partners, said the company sees their plan of three new resort communities and two new golf courses as an opportunity to attract visitors and new high-end homeowners to an area known for year-round recreation.

The county's extensive environmental impact report contradicts the lawsuit's claims, he said.

"There is an existing plan in place in the Martis Valley and it calls for a lot more development than what is in the new plan the county approved," Lessman said.

"The safeguards to protect the environment - which we all are concerned about - are substantially increased in the new plan," he said.

Mooers said the old plan dates to 1975 and is obsolete.

"We shouldn't base the future of Martis Valley on some plan from the 1970s," he said.

Other plaintiffs in the suit are Mountain Area Preservation Foundation and the Planning and Conservation League.

The Washoe Tribe also opposes the development in the area it considers an ancestral homeland.