Eastern Sierra counties seek sustainable growth

Land trades could help build affordable housing without compromising a beloved landscape

  • The Alabama Hills of the Sierra Nevada, three miles east of where Jim Walters hopes to build the Whitney Portal project

    Gary Crabbe/Enlightened Images
 

Even if you’ve never been to Lone Pine, Calif., you probably know the small town’s scenic backdrop from its starring roles in countless truck commercials, television shows and movies. But that world-class vista — of sage flats and sculptured granite boulders rising into craggy Sierra Nevada peaks — could change, if 27 luxury homes are built near the base of Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the Lower 48.

The homes that developer Jim Walters plans for the Whitney Portal Preserve will sit four miles from Lone Pine, amid public lands that daily see over 1,700 hikers and sightseers. That location makes the project a test case for growth management in the formerly sleepy counties of the Eastern Sierra.

Inyo County needs Walters’ development, says county supervisor Richard Cervantes; the growing popularity of Mammoth Lakes, a ski resort to the north in Mono County, has caused a real estate boom and housing shortage. Within three years, the two counties will need nearly 400 additional housing units. But there’s no room to expand: Communities here are hemmed in on all sides by public land, which makes up 98 percent of the county. Cervantes says that’s all the more reason that private land should be developed to provide property tax revenue and a range of new housing.

But opposition to the development has been fierce. Jennifer Fenton, president of the grassroots group Save Round Valley Alliance, says many locals want to preserve the county’s iconic views. In early September, the Alliance filed a lawsuit claiming that Inyo County’s approval of Walters’ project violated state environmental laws. Walters has agreed not to begin construction until a judge rules in the case.

It’s far from clear whether protesters will ultimately succeed in stopping the Whitney Portal project. But the dispute has already succeeded in adding urgency to a land-exchange plan that could head off future development controversies in the area.

A concerted effort

Bill Dunkelberger, head of the Bureau of Land Management’s Bishop field office, is promoting an optimistic compromise between growth and landscape conservation. He wants to exchange public lands close to existing towns for outlying parcels of private land where development would spark controversy.

The catch is that much of the land in the area belongs not to the BLM, but to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which bought up most of the Owens Valley for its water rights in the early 1900s. So Dunkelberger has led an effort to plan two- and three-way exchanges with other public land-holders in the region. In October 2004, he created a committee with representatives from the BLM, the City of Los Angeles, the Forest Service, Inyo and Mono Counties, California Fish and Game, and tribal leaders. He hopes the committee can create a map of public lands available for exchanges in this part of California.

The plan has come too late to prevent the Whitney Portal Project controversy. But Walters, who has spent several hundred thousand dollars on planning and environmental impact studies, says, "If Dunkelberger’s plan had been in place, I would’ve been interested" in considering an exchange. With the map in hand before they begin investing in a project, potential builders such as Walters may be more likely to consider exchanging their remote parcels for land closer to towns.

Agency officials will look to residents for help with identifying potential parcels for exchange. "We don’t want the agencies to produce the map without having communities say where they’d like to expand," says Dunkelberger, who hopes that gaining consensus now will cut down on challenges to future exchanges. His hopes are echoed by a fledgling group of landowners, environmentalists, and representatives from local chambers of commerce that is working to forge agreements about what constitutes acceptable development.

"We’re trying to get people on opposite sides to sit down and say, ‘Where do we go from here?’ " says Dwight McNaughton, who owns 1,400 acres east of Independence.

The devil’s in the details

There are plenty of hurdles to overcome. Though the counties’ general plans state — and environmentalists agree — that development should occur next to existing communities, there’s wide disagreement about what defines an existing community.

Timing is another issue. Clarence Martin, who represents the L.A. Department of Water and Power on Dunkelberger’s interagency committee, says the fastest he can release land for exchange is about 12 months; the disposal of some parcels could take five or more years to approve. And federal land exchanges are subject to environmental studies that can take several years to complete.

Land-swap proposals may also face objections from national advocacy groups. Janine Blaeloch, the executive director of the Western Lands Project, says that she’s wary of trades meant to discourage bad development. When an exchange has strong support from local communities, she says, the agencies involved are more likely to forgo exhaustive environmental impact statements in favor of briefer environmental assessments. And those shortcut reviews can result in trades that leave the public with lands of relatively little ecological value.

Despite those obstacles, the agencies are moving ahead. Dunkelberger is seeking funds to help the counties gather residents’ input this winter about possible parcels for local land exchanges. He hopes that the counties will adopt his group’s map as an official planning document by next fall.

"It may take a while," he says, but eventually, "we may be able to avoid future Whitney Portal Preserves."

The author is an HCN intern.

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