Selling It on the Mountain

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Selling It on the Mountain

Post by ERIC » Mon May 08, 2006 7:13 pm

Selling It on the Mountain

Backers say a planned year-round resort on a Sierra peak would bring new life to a depressed county. Opponents fear potential adverse effects.

By Tim Reiterman, Times Staff Writer
May 8, 2006

WESTWOOD, Calif. — From the snowy summit of Dyer Mountain, what the developers hail as a blank canvas unfolds with majestic views of Mt. Lassen and dark green timberland crawling up the volcanic slopes of the Cascades.

Their dream is to build California's first major ski operation in three decades and transform 7,000 acres abutting Walker Lake, 165 miles north of Sacramento, into a year-round resort with golf, mountain biking, hiking, boating, fishing and several thousand luxury dwellings and hotel rooms tucked amid the trees.

"I want people to have a very keen sense upon arrival that those who were involved in its creation treasured … the current existing conditions," said developer Briar Tazuk of San Francisco. "It is such a special site that it requires respect."

SWEEPING PLANS: Sara Duryea, a longtime fundraiser for the Dyer Mountain Resort project, is now one of its principals. She said the acquisition came as the land purchase contract was about to expire. “We came in at the last hour and saved the project.”
(Robert Durell / LAT)

If built, supporters say, Dyer Mountain Resort would inject new life into a formerly timber-dependent county that has attracted little new business activity besides the construction of two prisons.

Lassen County Supervisor Bob Pyle, a rancher whose district includes the town of Westwood, said the resort would be the largest private development in a county with about 35,000 residents, including state and federal inmates. "A lot of people would come ski for the weekend," Pyle said. "It would be like Tahoe."

However, the project has been bedeviled by financial troubles, infighting and public debate over its potential effects on the area's social fabric, traffic, air quality and wildlife.

"The project is in the wrong place," said Westwood resident Steve Robinson, a retired carpenter. "You are building a mega-resort on a lake that is extremely shallow, and with runoff and … pollution, it will kill the lake. We will lose prime waterfowl and fishing habitat … and it will completely change the lifestyle of our community."

Some residents of this onetime lumber company town of 2,000, which has lost about 80% of its population since the mid-20th century, worry about becoming an underclass serving wealthy new residents and tourists — and that real estate speculation will make home ownership unaffordable for their children.

Environmentalists, government agencies and hunters question the project's effect on migratory birds that flock to Walker Lake and on threatened bald eagles that nest nearby.

Members of the Honey Lake Maidu tribe say the development would desecrate hallowed land.

The developers pledge to respect any sacred sites and preserve 80% of the property as open space, including golf links and ski slopes. They plan to limit the number of fireplaces and woodstoves to minimize smoke pollution, and say they will prevent chemical fertilizer on golf courses from leaking into surface waters.

Residents of Westwood — where a statue of Paul Bunyan attests to the town's lumberjack past — are divided over the proposed resort. But most agree the resort would forever change the town's wide, lightly traveled main street and sleepy neighborhoods originally built for mill workers' families.

At Old Mill Cafe, owner Rob Theobald looks forward to joining his family on the ski slopes and seeing new jobs. "We know we will lose some small-town atmosphere," he said. "It's a mixed blessing.''

Around the corner at Woody's diner, owner Beth Meder is dead-set against the resort. "At first we thought it was good idea and would bring business," she said. "But it's gotten too big…. I don't want to see another Tahoe."

SACRED ACREAGE: Ron Morales, chairman of the Honey Lake Maidu tribe, said the proposed resort is on land where some of his own forebears are buried. “It is like taking our spirit.”
(Robert Durell / LAT)

In the late 1960s, the county identified Dyer Mountain — a 7,500-foot peak at the northern end of the Sierra Nevada and several hours' drive from the Bay Area — as suitable for a ski facility. A 1991 study concluded there was potential for a successful four-season resort.

Tazuk, a Chico native who knew the region from summer stints on trail crews, was a real estate broker with no resort experience. So he teamed up with a longtime friend, John Koeberer, a Red Bluff businessman who operates shops, cafes and other concessions in federal, state and county parks.

In 2000, they floated a county ballot measure permitting them to switch the zoning from agriculture to mountain resort.

Although slow-growth advocates warned that the measure would exempt the project from customary planning safeguards and allow wealthy investors to reap huge profits, it passed with more than 60% of the vote.

Dyer Mountain Associates acquired seed money from investors in San Francisco, Silicon Valley and elsewhere. But then the economy weakened, making it difficult to find enough backers, and Koeberer left the project.

There were times, company officials say, when the project office, headquartered in the old Masonic Hall here, was late with the rent or in danger of having its phone shut off.

Tazuk, meanwhile, was having his own problems.

He was caught illegally piping water from Lassen National Forest to land he owned in neighboring Plumas County and pleaded no contest to the federal misdemeanor in 2002 — which environmentalists said belied his professed commitment to careful stewardship of Dyer Mountain.

Last summer, as the company worked to raise money for an environmental study and $30 million to buy the resort land, investors who owned 3.5% of the project sued Tazuk and sought to oust him, accusing him of mismanagement.

Although the complaint was withdrawn, a newly formed investor group purchased a 45% share of the company from Tazuk for $1.5 million, plus a consulting fee of $15,000 a month for five years. Tazuk remains the majority owner, but the transaction took away some of his control, leaving him with one of three management votes.

One of the new principals is Sara Duryea, a longtime fundraiser for the project. She said the acquisition came as the development's land purchase contract was about to expire. "We came in at the last hour and saved the project," she said. "We wanted to preserve the vision and keep the investors whole."

But Tazuk said he has been unfairly maligned by his business associates and is the victim of a hostile takeover. "It can't help but cast a pall [over the project], and it's sad," he said. "It was very damaging for the perception to be that it became a troubled project.'"

Still, the management changes, along with the recent purchase of land for the resort, have encouraged the project's supporters.

"We are hoping it will mean an increase in our … hotel taxes and more people coming into the area with tourist dollars," said Patricia Hagata, executive director of the Lassen County Chamber of Commerce. "We are pretty much at the bottom of the tourism scale in California."

The county is reviewing a draft environmental impact report that estimates the development could bring hundreds of jobs and up to 17,000 residents within the next 30 years, and lure thousands of skiers and golfers.

But the report also predicts increased traffic congestion, deteriorating air quality and threats to archeological resources.

A petition signed by 177 members of the Honey Lake Maidu tribe opposed the development, as did a report by a UC Berkeley anthropologist.

Tribal Chairman Ron Morales said the resort is on land where their Creator walked and where some of his own forebears, including his great-grandfather, are buried. "I'm trying to tell the developers, 'Don't dig our people up and put them in boxes,' " he said. "It is like taking our spirit."

Project officials said the Maidu sites are nearby but outside the project's boundaries. They said they would keep resort users away by posting signs and security patrols. "We are trying to be respectful," said Nick Ceaglio, the project's community relations director.

State forestry officials are concerned because the resort plans call for removing trees from 1,600 acres, or 2.5 square miles — many times the acreage officials say is annually removed from areas California has reserved for timber production.

Project officials said they would raise and harvest timber alongside the ski slopes and would have a full-time forester.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has warned that the development is likely to harm or disturb two bald eagle pairs — one nesting on the project site, the other nearby. And the agency said increased human activity at a Walker Lake breeding area on the Pacific Flyway could scare off waterfowl and disrupt eagles' food supplies.

The developers said they would provide an adequate buffer zone around the eagles. "If we come down here, and there is an eagle's nest, we can stay back and it becomes an asset," said project manager Jerry Duffy. " 'Come see our eagle's nest.' "

The California Waterfowl Assn. is concerned that the project, besides harming migrating birds, could also lead to a ban on hunting. "Folks are not going to want to hear shotgun blasts at 6 a.m.," said Mark Hennelly, deputy director of government affairs. "It will be a clash of rural versus urban cultures."

Project officials said the development would do nothing to discourage hunting and that homes would have extra soundproofing so residents would be unlikely to hear either snow-making equipment or shotgun fire. "A hunter in the middle of the lake is not going to knock anyone out of bed," said project consultant Doug Clyde.

Yet even the location's suitability for winter sports has been questioned by some industry experts, who point out that Dyer Mountain's 5,000-foot base is at a lower altitude than many resorts.

"They can put in … snow-making equipment and can make it more dependable on upper reaches," said Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Assn. "But in light snow years, it's a stretch."

Noting that the mountain's average spring snowpack is more than 5 feet, project officials say the resort would have plenty of snow for 13 high-speed lifts.

On a warm day in late April, the deep snow on the mountaintop was softening. "The upper lift probably will provide good skiing from mid-November until June 1," said project manager Duffy, adding: "It will require some snow-making."

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Post by hikerduane » Mon May 08, 2006 8:09 pm

I know some people in Westwood and they are not for the project. When one gal I know there and her husband were working for the same company as I was, they were worried about the business center getting moved to the new town. It would difinitely change the atmosphere. Westwood has a small, logging town, close knit feel to it. For sure a mountain community. I would hate to see the traffic on 36. The road is bad in the winter and people are in a hurry in the warm months, I do around 55 to 60 and someone is always on my butt.
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Post by sierra_smitty » Mon May 08, 2006 10:31 pm

Interesting......not sure I'd like it if I was in a small town in the area but the truth is Californian's need recreational opportunities to survive the rat race and IMO, the more the betta.

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Post by dave54 » Tue May 09, 2006 12:33 pm

I live in Westwood.

I initially opposed the project, but later realized the town needs an economic base or it would slowly die. Although not perfect, I feel the economic benefits outweigh the negative impacts. The mitigations proposed by the developer are sufficient to assuage my fears. My real remaining concern is the risk of pricing local young couples out of the housing market -- something that has happened at Tahoe, Aspen, Ketchum, et al. Then again -- I own my own home so I personally benefit from a housing boom (already occurring).

The opponents to the project are a small but vociferous minority. The majority of the residents support the project.

"...The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has warned that the development is likely to harm or disturb two bald eagle pairs — one nesting on the project site..."

That nest has been abandoned/inactive for several years. I can walk to the end of my street with a pair of binoculars and see it. No one is home.

Also, the headline says 'Sierra peak'. The project is in the Cascades, although by only a stones throw. Journalistic license?
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