AR­RESTED DE­VEL­OP­MENT

Squaw Val­ley, Calif., is in the midst of a mas­sive re­sort over­haul, and the com­mu­nity is sharply di­vided. How did things get to this point, and is there a com­pro­mise in the fu­ture? The re­sort’s suc­cess de­pends on it.

SKI - - NEWS - By Me­gan Michel­son

Squaw Val­ley is in the midst of mas­sive changes, and the com­mu­nity is harshly di­vided. Here’s where things stand to­day.

Blasé, even. You stop hus­tling for first chair. You roll in late, glance at the snow re­port (another 20 inches overnight? No big deal), and don’t mind wait­ing for your friends at the lift.

It’s a stormy Mon­day af­ter­noon in late Fe­bru­ary at Squaw Val­ley, and I’m showing up for my first run of the day at 2 p.m. KT-22 is de­serted. Huge swaths of the moun­tain look un­tracked and the snow and wind are still pound­ing, ren­der­ing vis­i­bil­ity nil and pow­der bot­tom­less. The lo­cals have ei­ther al­ready come and con­quered or they didn’t bother head­ing out for their umpteenth pow­der day in a row.

I run into a friend, Katy. She’s wear­ing a trash bag over her jacket to stay dry, her pony­tail caked with snow. She says she keeps mean­ing to call it quits and head to work but she can’t pull her­self away. One more run, she keeps say­ing. I fol­low her into Rock Gar­den off KT’s pin­na­cle, where steep, widely-spaced trees open up into an apron stuffed with so much fresh snow, I point it down­hill, care­free and laugh­ing out loud.

Storm af­ter mas­sive storm nailed the Ta­hoe area all last win­ter, bury­ing chair­lifts, turn­ing roads into tun­nels, and prompt­ing the Squaw mar­ket­ing depart­ment to dub the first month of 2017 “Januburied.” Schools were closed for so many snow days the kids were stuck in class­rooms un­til late June, Jan­uary power out- ages left houses on Lake Ta­hoe’s west shore in the dark for over a week, and record-break­ing amounts of pre­cip­i­ta­tion led wa­ter ex­perts to of­fi­cially de­clare Cal­i­for­nia’s four-year drought over.

If any­one for­got what a Ta­hoe win­ter could look like—snow­banks as high as build­ings, snow­plows crank­ing around the clock, and two-foot pow­der days stacked like domi­noes—then last win­ter was a good re­minder of the area’s po­ten­tial. But while Squaw skiers were gloat­ing about face shots and dig­ging out their cars, a deeper is­sue lurked be­neath the sur­face, a con­tro­ver­sial de­vel­op­ment project that’s prac­ti­cally tear­ing this sto­ried Cal­i­for­nia moun­tain in half.

It’s the same tale as many other ski re­sorts: Cor­po­rate own­er­ship wants to build out con­dos and ho­tels, con­struct new shops and restau­rants, and maybe throw in a wa­ter­park just for the fun of it. They want to in­crease rev­enue by at­tract­ing des­ti­na­tion vis­i­tors and cre­ate a year-round megare­sort to com­pete with all the other shiny, amenity-filled re­sorts cur­rently lur­ing their cus­tomers else­where.

And the lo­cal shred­ders, well, they just want to keep their moun­tain as is. They don’t care about fancy ho­tels or the bot­tom line. They hate the idea of wa­ter­slides at their ski hill and they want to be able to see the moun­tain from their drive in, not have

When your moun­tain gets over 720 inches of snow in a sea­son, pow­der days be­come al­most rou­tine.

their pre­cious steeps blocked by a tow­er­ing vil­lage. They want fewer peo­ple in the lift line, less traf­fic on the ac­cess road. They’d rather tourists go some­where else for their va­ca­tion.

The de­vel­op­ment that KSL, the Den­ver-based pri­vate eq­uity firm that’s owned Squaw since 2010, is plan­ning to build at the base of Squaw Val­ley would be the big­gest thing this moun­tain has seen since the 1960 Win­ter Olympic Games. It would add to the vil­lage that’s al­ready there nearly 1,500 ho­tel rooms, dorm­style hous­ing for 300 em­ploy­ees, and a six-story, 90,000-square­foot moun­tain re­cre­ation cen­ter. Ninety per­cent of the de­vel­op­ment will be con­structed on what is cur­rently an 82-acre park­ing lot, ac­cord­ing to Squaw.

Squaw es­ti­mates the project, which was first pro­posed in 2012 and could take up to 25 years to com­plete, will bring in $22 mil­lion in an­nual tax rev­enue to help fund things like schools and road projects, add 500 lo­cal jobs, and pro­vide much-needed af­ford­able hous­ing.

Those op­posed to the de­vel­op­ment dis­agree on many of those fronts. They say it’ll turn the val­ley into a con­struc­tion zone for the next few decades, strain nat­u­ral re­sources, dras­ti­cally worsen an al­ready dire traf­fic sit­u­a­tion, and add high­rise con­dos and a mas­sive wa­ter­park that don’t fit the area’s moun­tain ethos.

So how do th­ese two di­verg­ing sides find a happy medium? Can a busi­ness that needs to se­cure its fi­nan­cial fu­ture also care about pleas­ing its touchy, don’t-change-a-thing cus­tomers? Can re­sort own­er­ship possibly in­cor­po­rate feed­back from the mul­ti­tudes of voices scream­ing “do this, don’t do that”?

And if you’re a Squaw loy­al­ist, a skier who was drawn to this strik­ing val­ley for its var­ied, snow-laden ter­rain, do you de­serve a say in the fu­ture of what you con­sider your moun­tain? You have twoop­tions.You­can­sit­backand­watchas­there­sorty­ou­call­home be­comes some­thing else en­tirely. Or you can stand up and fight.

No­body is eat­ing from the baked-potato bar at the Fat Cat Bar and Grill in Ta­hoe City when I show up for a happy hour on a stormy Wed­nes­day night in Fe­bru­ary. The 30 or so peo­ple crammed into this tiny bar are here for a gather­ing hosted by Sierra Watch, the en­vi­ron­men­tal watchdog or­ga­ni­za­tion that’s been ral­ly­ing the op­po­si­tion to the Squaw vil­lage de­vel­op­ment.

Th­ese are the folks who showed up in droves in pur­ple “Keep Squaw True” T-shirts for the nine-hour meet­ing last Novem­ber when the Placer County Board of Su­per­vi­sors voted 4 to 1 to ap­prove the de­vel­op­ment. When Squaw CEO Andy Wirth took to the podium to plead his case, the pur­ple shirt bri­gade held up signs with the word “Deny.”

Af­ter the board ap­proved the project, rather than cel­e­brate, Wirth went to Taco Bell for a root beer and a bur­rito, then got back to the busi­ness of open­ing the ski area for the sea­son. Sierra Watch later filed sev­eral law­suits to at­tempt to over­turn the ap­proval, cit­ing im­proper en­vi­ron­men­tal anal­y­sis and an in­ad­e­quacy of the pub­lic process. The is­sue is ex­pected to go to trial in March 2018.

The vibe at the happy hour feels fes­tive—there’s cheap beer, raf­fle tick­ets, and trucker hats for prizes—but folks are here be­cause they’re dis­grun­tled. One girl tells me, “There’s so much an­i­mos­ity, I feel like I have to do some­thing. Peo­ple who’ve skied Squaw for a long time are con­sid­er­ing mov­ing be­cause things are so ugly and di­vided.”

Isaac Sil­ver­man, the staff at­tor­ney for Sierra Watch, stands up to ad­dress the crowd. “State law re­quires that th­ese de­ci­sions be made by lo­cal gov­ern­ments based on re­al­ity, not on the wish­ful think­ing of a pri­vate eq­uity firm that wants to make money,” he says. “We think our case is rock solid, so don’t give up hope. But it’s go­ing to be a while. The good news is noth­ing is go­ing to hap­pen in terms of build­ing all this crap—sorry, all this stuff—un­til they deal with this. We’re not go­ing to have an in­door wa­ter­park un­til they deal with this.”

Sil­ver­man will later tell me that it’s not that they’re op­posed to any and all de­vel­op­ment. “We just want to see it done on a scale that’s con­sis­tent with our moun­tains, that means lim­ited moun­tain in­fra­struc­ture,” he says. “Do­ing things that cel­e­brate, rather than re­place, what we love about Ta­hoe.”

I drink a beer and chat with a lo­cal fire­fighter who showed up for his first foray in com­mu­nity ac­tivism. But there’s re­ally just one per­son I came here to speak with, and even­tu­ally he walks through the door, wear­ing his pur­ple T-shirt un­der his ski jacket. This is Robb Gaffney, a 46-year-old lo­cal psy­chi­a­trist and long­time Squaw Val­ley skier, one of the area’s most vo­cal and out­spo­ken op­po­nents to KSL’s vi­sion. He’s also the least likely per­son you can imag­ine to be stag­ing a protest against the very re­sort that drew him here in the first place.

Gaffney grew up the youngest of three broth­ers in Tup­per Lake, N. Y., a small town in the Adiron­dacks. He learned to ski on Big Tup­per’s 1,100 ver­ti­cal feet. As a kid, he re­mem­bers get­ting his teeth cleaned while his den­tist told him about his an­nual trip to a place called Squaw Val­ley, where skiers charged risky lines in plain sight of the chair­lift. Gaffney’s par­ents, who’d spent time in Ta­hoe be­fore get­ting mar­ried, took the fam­ily to Lake Ta­hoe on sum­mer va­ca­tions.

While study­ing pre-med at the Univer­sity of Colorado at Boul­der, Gaffney, his brother, Scott, and some room­mates would road trip out to Ta­hoe for win­ter and spring breaks, and Scott would lug a huge cam­era ev­ery­where to film his bud­dies ski­ing. (Scott would later be­come one of the pre­mier cin­e­matog­ra­phers in the ski movie busi­ness, a vet­eran filmer for Match­stick Pro­duc­tions.)

Gaffney moved to Ta­hoe af­ter grad­u­at­ing col­lege in 1993—he worked race ser­vices for Squaw and picked up shifts bag­ging gro­ceries. He de­layed med­i­cal school for a year but soon went back to Colorado to get his MD, then moved to Davis, Calif., for his res­i­dency, which made it easy to spend his time off in Ta­hoe.

The ’90s were a hey­day for Squaw. The Gaffney broth­ers quickly be­came part of a scene that in­cluded skiers like Scot Sch­midt, Shane McCon­key, and Kent Kre­itler, who helped put the moun­tain on the map, scor­ing seg­ments in ski movies and bring­ing a sense of style and flair to ski­ing that no­body had ever seen.

Dur­ing his res­i­dency, Gaffney penned a book called “Squal­ly­wood: A Guide to Squaw’s Most Ex­posed Lines.” It of­fered de­tailed ac­counts of the moun­tain’s trick­i­est chutes and cliffs, lines with names like Chim­ney Sweep and Mid­dle Knuckle. He mostly wrote be­tween 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. “I wasn’t able to ski, so I fig­ured I’d write about it,” he says.

He did, even­tu­ally, get back to ski­ing: He moved to Ta­hoe full time in 2003, at the age of 32, and took over the prac­tice of a re­tir­ing psy­chi­a­trist at the base of Squaw Val­ley. “Squaw was this at­trac­tive force that you wanted to be a part of,” he says.

He helped put to­gether many ski movies shot at Squaw and around Ta­hoe, in­clud­ing 2011’s G.N.A.R., the Movie, a mock­u­men­tary that spoofed pro ski­ing by award­ing G.N.A.R. points

This is how Squaw Val­ley looked much of last sea­son, gen­er­ously cov­ered in a fresh coat of snow. Head­wall and Tram Face peaks are pic­tured.

Fom top: Lo­cals joined anti-de­vel­op­ment group Keep Squaw True to protest the ex­pan­sion; an aerial view of one of the pro­posed ex­pan­sion sites.

From top: Robb Gaffney is one of the staunch­est op­po­nents of the pro­posed Squaw Val­ley de­vel­op­ment; Ry­lan Cor­dova lays tracks with Lake Ta­hoe shim­mer­ing in the back­ground.

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