As a sewer line makes its way up to Mt. Rose ski resort, can development be far behind?
“The buildings keep going up and up the mountain. I think it should be stopped. They’ll ruin this country. But that’s progress.” Ralph Patterson, Reno local
“My personal opinion is to go slow on the prospect of developing Mt. Rose. People like me who have lived here a long time view it as the last vestiges of access into the back country.” Rick Jones, chair of the Incline Village-Crystal Bay Citizen Advisory BoardSeemingly overnight, the air along the Mount Rose Highway corridor had turned crisp and tight. A gray mass of chalkboard smudges streaked the sky, and some of the season’s first fresh snowflakes began to sprinkle the mountain.
Down by the tree line on this early November morning, Johnny-On-the-Spot portable toilet salesman Cole Ginter was driving in from Reno past the town of Galena and on up toward Reno’s closest ski resort—Mt. Rose-Ski Tahoe.
This is the same route a new sewer line will take once the full project is completed next summer.
Ginter knows a thing or two about sewage, as the red jacket he wears bearing the toilet company’s logo sewn into the lapel reminds anyone who meets him. He knows a sewer line is a big key to opening Mt. Rose to future development. And while not an expert, he knows a bit about the mountain, too. He moved to Reno in 1976 and has used Mount Rose as his outdoor stomping grounds ever since. He shot his first buck on one of its hills and used to slide down its snowy slopes in an inner tube as a kid.
Part of him wants to see the mountain left alone, while another part sees the benefits development can bring.
“Development is good,” he opined. “It’s sad for people who have lived here for a while and don’t want to see change. But there are positives, like providing for families.”
Flush with growth
The mountain has attracted its share of development in recent years, although most of it has remained at its base.
In the past decade, Galena has transformed from a sleepy ranching community into a sprawling Reno suburb with new housing subdivisions, malls, schools and the upscale Montreaux golf course. The town actually manages to make even its McDonald’s look quaint.
For some, the mountain is a big reason why they moved to this South Reno area. They were lured by its promise of beauty, escape from the city and a little outdoor fun.
All of those people would create quite a stink without sewer service to accommodate them. Joe Stowell and his fellow engineers at the Washoe County Department of Water Resources have been busy adding new water and sewer services to much of the expanding area. “This used to be the boonies,” he said, tapping his index finger on a map of South Reno.
“We have a brand new mall coming in. We have a brand new freeway, new churches, new hospitals. This is a new town,” said realtor Ron Bell of Coldwell Banker Village Realty.
Home prices along the Mount Rose Highway corridor now range from $450,000 to more than $4 million, according to Bell. He said the area is being seen by retirees, second-home buyers, ski buffs and upper income folk as a less expensive alternative to Lake Tahoe properties.
But from where Galena disintegrates into a two-lane highway lined with Douglas fir, ponderosa and Jeffrey pine on up to the Mt. Rose ski resort at 8,260 ft. elevation, Mount Rose has remained one of the less disturbed ski resort areas in the region. The mountain hosts only a small smattering of homes, restaurants, ski-related businesses and, of course, the Mt. Rose-Ski Tahoe resort. There is currently no lodging in which to spend the night on the mountain, and Mt. Rose-Ski Tahoe has been a day-ski resort serving mostly locals since its opening in 1964.
For better or worse, plans underway to complete a sewer line up to the Mt. Rose ski resort could change all that.
If you don’t consider a sewer line to be a very sexy prospect, consider that without it, Mt. Rose would pretty much stay as it is.
The basic concept is simple, albeit crass: Shit happens, and without a sewer system, real growth cannot.
“Sewer service is a condition of development,” said senior engineer Rick Warner of the Washoe County Department of Water Resources.
Funded primarily by the Mt. Rose ski resort, the sewer line is a two-phase project.
Since the first leg was completed by Washoe County this past summer, sewer service now extends from the Galena Forest Estates housing development at the base of Mount Rose up to the site of the former Tannenbaum Ski Area, where the remains of a decrepit ski lift still sit in a slump of disrepair. That first sewer line was funded by a special assessment district made up of landowners who benefit from the sewer line.
With 1,200 acres of skiable land and an additional 500 acres with various zoning designations, the biggest landowner by far is Mt. Rose ski resort, so the company footed most of the $1.3 million bill.
For the second phase, Mt. Rose-Ski Tahoe contracted with Reno’s ECO:LOGIC Engineering to oversee the design and construction of the remaining 10,500 linear feet of sewer line from Tannenbaum to Mt. Rose ski resort—a task estimated to cost $1 million. This final construction is expected to begin and end next summer and will serve the ski resort as well as private properties in the area and the city of Reno’s Sky Tavern junior ski program.
Mt. Rose’s quiet reputation as a secret snow jewel is steadily being uncovered by the masses. It’s that growing popularity that led to the ski resort’s decision to put in the sewer line, said company spokesman Mike Pierce.
About 200,000 skiers visit Mt. Rose each season, with last year being one of its busiest. A 20 percent increase in skier visits was seen in the 2004-05 season over the previous record season of 2002-03. Pierce said that increase was likely a combination of an early Nov. 12 opening, the 424 inches of snow that kept the mountain well blanketed, a new high-speed six-pack chair and the grand opening of The Chutes—an extreme-terrain skiers’ dream (or nightmare, depending on your abilities) with 55-degree slopes.
“We know continued growth could tax our septic system,” said Pierce. “For us to continue, the sewer system is a step in the right direction.”
The ski resort, like most homes and businesses on Mount Rose, currently runs on septic systems and well water.
A few rural homes on septic systems present no major threat to groundwater, explained Warner. But increase the density to 15 condos or a hotel, and septic systems don’t have enough capacity to deal with this most basic of human functions. The systems can leak, crack or overflow, any of which could degrade groundwater. Furthermore, the Department of Water Resources won’t allow for such structures to be built without being hooked up to a sewer line.
“Too many septics in one area can degrade drinking water,” said Warner while sitting in his cluttered county office, maps from various water projects propped in stacks against the walls. “The end goal is to protect the groundwater.”
For Mt. Rose-Ski Tahoe, the goal is also to keep the people coming.
“The primary reason the sewer is coming up here is so the current septic system does not get taxed to the point where we would have to limit skiers,” said Pierce.
Some wonder if Mt. Rose-Ski Tahoe is also bringing the sewer line up the mountain so it can develop the roughly 11 acres of property the company has zoned for commercial tourism development.
“Our current owners do not have official plans to develop that acreage,” said Pierce. He affirmed the sewer line would open up the prospect for development in future years but would not speculate on what such development might look like.
According to the Washoe County Department of Community Development, examples of allowed uses (some requiring special permits) of property zoned “tourist commercial” include restaurants, hotels, motels, vacation time shares and hostels. Developments such as condominiums would require a “down-zoning” to a residential use.
A sewer line alone will not allow development to run willy-nilly all over Mount Rose. The surrounding Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest protects 28,121 acres of Mount Rose wilderness. Zoning restrictions on the few existing parcels of private property limit much of the rest. The Mount Rose Highway is also a scenic corridor, which entails rules that keep buildings within 500 feet from the highway from looming more than 35 feet high.
Nevertheless, Gary Schmidt, a long-time resident eccentric of Mount Rose, devoted attendee of planning commission meetings and owner of the Reindeer Lodge, estimates that a sewer line running from the base of Mount Rose to the summit could make way for the equivalent of 125 new homes and more than 200 lodging units.
He would like to take advantage of the sewer line himself to build an 8,000-square-feet “trading post” market and about 40 alpine lodging units on five acres he owns across the highway from the Reindeer Lodge.
“This area needs to expand, amplify and accentuate its outdoor activities and get away from the casino mentality that (Reno) is a gambling mecca,” said Schmidt, sounding somewhat like a politician-in-training (an idea he kicks around from time to time). He wants to see more emphasis on the area’s hiking, biking, fishing, birdwatching and winter sport opportunities, and he thinks visitors to Mount Rose should have a place to stay while they do them.
Schmidt has not always espoused development on Mount Rose. In the 1970s, the land between the Reindeer Lodge and Tannenbaum (the former Christmas Tree) restaurant was changed from a commercial to a multi-residential zoning to make way for the Sunridge Estates housing development. Schmidt fought that zoning change in court, ultimately settling for three of the Sunridge lots, which now buffer his lodge and its amalgam of antiquated wagon wheels, wood carvings, fire engines and snowmobile collections from the other homes. There are now 18 Tahoe-style homes at Sunridge with three scheduled to be built next year.
“The threat came to me when they built those houses behind the lodge,” said Schmidt. After that, he said, Mount Rose was no longer the same. Rather than fight further development, he has become its proponent.
Schmidt recalls a time during the 1970s when the Mount Rose Highway corridor was still a rustic mountain road. He would ride his snowmobile clear down to South Virginia Street to pick up Reindeer Lodge stragglers.
Sitting in his white Chevy Silverado on Bums Gulch Road, gray hair stashed in a blue baseball cap, Schmidt said, “This area’s already changed, and you’re not going to stop it now.”
That may sound rather defeatist coming from a guy who moved to Mount Rose in part because he was attracted to the mountain’s remoteness and solitude.
His light blue eyes followed three cars as they passed by within seconds along the Mount Rose Highway in front of him. “Solitude is when you see three cars a day,” he said. “This is not wilderness. This is a major highway from one of the fastest growing communities in the United States.”
Even so, Schmidt thinks progress will only make its way so far up Mount Rose. Never mind U.S. Forest Service land and zoning whatnots. He thinks the same natural element that attracts so many people to Mount Rose each winter will keep them from getting too cozy there—lots and lots of snow.
“The elements here are substantially more severe than right down there at the tree line,” said Schmidt. “You can wake up in the morning to six feet of snow.”
While there are people like Schmidt who love that—people he calls “reclusive,” “eccentric” and “nuts"—there are others who only think they will love it.
Schmidt idled his truck before a house in the Sunridge Estates by his lodge. A “For Sale” sign stuck out of the ground in its front yard. He shook his head and guffawed, noting how the people who most recently lived there stayed only two or three years before moving away. That’s not uncommon, he said.
“I think people who come up here don’t do their research,” said Schmidt. “They don’t seem to know how much snow there really is.”
But then again, it snows an awful lot in Aspen and Tahoe, too, and those places are hardly ghost towns.
There is a sense of the inevitability of growth on the mountain, and its population is already growing. Hooking up to a sewer line is generally viewed as a responsible way to go about it both for those who are there and those who will come.
“I would think any sort of sewer containment would be a good idea for the developments already there,” said Rick Jones, chair of the Incline Village-Crystal Bay Citizen Advisory Board. “But my personal opinion is to go slow on the prospect of developing Mount Rose. People like me who have lived here a long time view it as the last vestige of access into the back country.”
Jones has lived in the Lake Tahoe Basin for the past 30 years and has watched the trickle of developments at the base of the Mount Rose Highway corridor turn into somewhat of a deluge. “You get stuff too close to a main highway and people just love it to death,” he said.
Thus far, that has been curtailed on Mount Rose itself.
When a group of Galena developers sought to build a housing community and golf course resort at the top of the mountain more than a decade ago, public opinion shot it down. The Friends of Galena organization and various property owners along the corridor fought vehemently against the developers to prevent what they thought would be an ecological disaster. The project was never built.
While a mountain-top golf course may be a different animal from the extra homes and lodges that could potentially develop within the area’s existing zoning, the growth of Mt. Rose is championed by some for the same reason growth is lauded all over the city: It’s the economy, stupid.
“Believe it or not, growth fuels the economy,” said Ron Steele, a fiscal analyst with the Washoe County Finance Department.
While the county is not paying for part two of the Mount Rose sewer line, various county departments must make sure outside contractors (ECO:LOGIC, in this case) are building the line to code specifics. Steele said he has never seen the county decline an outside offer to build a sewer line. That would be turning down economic growth.
“We want $3 million houses,” he said, sitting in his county office lined with framed works by environmental photographer Ansel Adams. “We don’t want $30,000 houses.” The $3 million houses rarely require additional county services such as schools or health clinics, said Steele, while the lower income houses “are full of people getting their child immunizations down at Social Services.”
Exhibiting the mentality of a professional number cruncher, Steele said the ideal vision of growth is expensive homes that provide a strong tax base but have no need for services. “We need those taxes to pay for those social services,” he said. “Not to be socialistic about it. That’s just how it goes.”
Up at the Forest Service’s trailhead parking lot to the Mount Rose summit, Ginter and Reno local Ralph Patterson aren’t thinking about taxes or budgets. They’re standing in the whipping wind, ears turning red with each new gust, chatting about the days when Reno was still the “Biggest Little City.” Now, they said, it’s just big.
Patterson, who grew up in Reno and works for the Nevada Department of Transportation, is the quieter of the two men. But when he speaks, his opinions are firm. “The buildings keep going up and up the mountain,” he said. “I think it should be stopped. They’ll ruin this country. But that’s progress.”
“If money is involved, things are going to get pushed through,” said Ginter.
“You can’t stop progress if it helps the economy,” added Patterson. “That’s what Reno’s all about.”
Perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. After all, there are no applications for zoning changes or development proposals for the mountain sitting on the desks of county planners in the Department of Community Development. Yet.
Mt. Rose-Ski Tahoe itself has clearly stated it has no immediate plans to develop its commercial land for tourists. The company just doesn’t want a bunch of crap to get in the way of receiving its visitors. (Pun intended).
But the installation of a sewer line represents the leaping of a major hurdle to development on Mount Rose. Other hurdles still exist—the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, zoning designations and a lack of available private property, to name a few.
But as Warner at the Department of Water Resources said regarding the first leg of the county-built line, “We’re not going to build a sewer line with the hope that in 10 to 20 years (the landowners) will build something.” That “something” is expected to come soon.
Developing ideas may not have made it to official documents yet, but they are there. And the door will soon be open to them.