When residents of a small housing development in Tahoe, Calif., objected to opening an emergency access road to traffic headed for the nearby Northstar ski resort, they invoked the California Environmental Quality Act, the state’s landmark 1970 land-use statute. Christopher Carr, chairman of Morrison & Foerster’s environmental and energy practice, filed suit on the residents’ behalf on January 29 in Placer County, Calif., Superior Court. In a conversation with The National Law Journal, Carr talked about what attracted a developer-side attorney like himself to this case, which he said symbolizes a growing controversy about development in the Lake Tahoe region.

Rob Sandman, deputy county counsel for Placer County, said: "We are aware of the lawsuit and are confident the county will prevail."

The remarks below have been edited for length and clarity.

NLJ: You normally defend clients in environmental cases, particularly those brought by citizen groups. But in this case, you’re representing the citizens group. Why?

Christopher Carr: My client base typically is large developers, resource extractors, industry companies, timber industry, residential and commercial or apartment developers. In that sense, this is a bit different for me. But the facts of the case and law of the case are so compelling and the conduct of the county and the defendants so egregious that any responsible developer would recognize the impropriety and unlawfulness of what’s going on here. They would never get themselves in the situation.

NLJ: How did you get wind of this suit?

Carr: They approached us. They’re familiar with our firm and our reputation in the environmental litigation area.

NLJ: Tell me about your clients in this case.

Carr: The [lead plaintiffs] are a couple who live in Silicon Valley — they are Russian immigrants who came to the United States 20 or 30 years ago, and they’re engineers. They’ve loved to ski in the Tahoe area and were looking for a family vacation house. So they bought in a subdivision called The Retreat.

It’s turned out that The Retreat has been anything but a retreat for them. The developer next door, Martis Camp, a gigantic 2,000-acre, 650-lot development of luxury homes, is trying to use what was supposed to be an emergency vehicle access-only road through the 18-home tiny subdivision to access the Northstar ski resort. And the organization we’re representing, TRUST, which is Tahoe Residents United for Safe Transit, includes other homeowners and interested folks in the area who are troubled by the fact that the county has gone back on its commitment that the road would be an emergency vehicle access road, and if it were ever considered to be opened up to other than emergency vehicle access-only traffic, there would be a full public CEQA process for that.

NLJ: What are they alleging?

Carr: The amount of traffic would be something like 30 times the amount of traffic the road was engineered and designed for. The Retreat is a small subdivision. The road was designed only to accommodate and carry traffic that originates in The Retreat, those 18 homes, and emergency vehicle access from Martis Camp. And Martis Camp residents wanting a shortcut to the ski resort is not emergency vehicle access. They’re already using it for this purpose, and Martis Camp installed an electronically controlled secure gate that enables Martis Camp residents and their guests to use for this purpose.

The county, along with the developer, has just completely flouted the Martis Valley Community Plan. So you have a situation where the county is simply refusing to perform its clear mandatory and ministerial, nondiscretionary duty to enforce the project approvals for both Martis Camp and The Retreat.

My clients, of course, purchased in The Retreat with the completely reasonable impression and understanding that "retreat" wasn’t a misnomer and they were going to be able to enjoy a home in a small 18-lot subdivision where they could have some peace and quiet, a Tahoe skiing experience, and not have a thoroughfare for hundreds of cars to daily possibly travel through their subdivision.

NLJ: Why did they resort to filing suit?

Carr: There was a November 1 letter from the county indicating that the county was siding with Martis Camp. This followed a couple of years of my clients having discussions with the county to try to resolve this issue, and they were stonewalled by the county. Instead, the county issued a November 1 letter saying the county’s action was not appealable to the Board of Supervisors, so by their own declaration they took a final action that compelled us to file suit.

NLJ: There is another suit pending in federal court by the Sierra Club over expansion plans in Placer County of the Homewood ski resort. How common are these suits in Tahoe?

Carr: I’m not familiar with the Sierra Club lawsuit. I know generally there has been a lot of controversy in the Tahoe area about growth and particularly traffic and environmental impacts. It’s a beautiful area. It’s one of California’s crown jewels. The lake faces significant environmental threats, and there’s just a lot of population pressure in the area. People want to have homes out there, and a lot of people who have homes aren’t from the area.

NLJ: Have you been to Northstar ski resort?

Carr: I used to ski. And I’ve been to Northstar a number of times. For those readers who may be skiers, the Northstar resort is one of a number of fine ski resorts in the Tahoe area. But the truth is, I’m not a good enough skier to describe anything more.

Contact Amanda Bronstad at abronstad@alm.com.