The Fate of Donner Summit

In 2005 Mark and Todd Foster, of Foster enterprises, the firm responsible for filling in a large swath of San Francisco Bay wetlands to build the eponymous Foster City, and Kirk Syme, sole owner of Woodstock Development of San Mateo County, purchased the iconic Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort, at Donner Summit, California. At the same time they purchased large chunks of land surrounding the small Donner Summit community of Serene Lakes.

The purchase price for the ongoing cross country ski enterprise, which included Rainbow Lodge, a charming old inn on the rocky banks of the South Yuba River, came in around $21 million, and the land purchases totaled around $13 million. The would-be Sierra developers signed on the dotted line, borrowed $17 million dollars from Bank Midwest, a private bank owned by the Dickinson family, and started working on their plans to spin pine trees into gold up on the crest of the Sierra.

It made no matter to the erstwhile developers, now operating as Royal Gorge LLC, that most of the land they purchased wasn’t zoned for development. That’s never held a determined developer back in California, and should certainly not present much of a problem for a project in Placer and Nevada counties (Donner Summit is split between both counties), which are considered developer friendly even by California standards.

Before a developer even gets the training wheels off his bike, he knows how the game is worked, and RG LLC showed they were up to all the tricks. Largesse in the form of political donations was dealt out with a lavish hand, to Congressman Doolittle, to then- Congressman Pombo, Congressman Doolittle’s PAC, and on down the tennis ladder of elected Republicans- not forgetting the local supervisor. Armadas of consultant’s were hired, with of course the most important being the public relations group, in this case Switchback PR of Truckee, a firm well versed in real estate/development in mountain areas.

But, puhleeze-it’s as if these PR firms ordered “Flannel shirted, camp architecture, heritage for your family, roasting marshmallows” from some internet schtick supplier, because every mountain area development has the same stale template. Buildings that will “respect” the environment- development that will “teach” the public to appreciate the wilderness, and time-shares that will “enhance” the cross country ski experience. No amount of plaid flannel yardage wrapped around 1000 condos could disguise the fact RG LLC planned to pave a whole lot of a wilderness area. The locals quickly woke up to the fact that what was a low key, funky place, was about to be turned into yet another corporate ski area, of the type detailed in Hal Clifford’s excellent “Downhill Slide.”

Realtors have that mantra, “location, location, location”, and Donner Summit has location galore. Situated on the western slope of the Sierra Crest, at an elevation of 7000 feet, it gets more snow than most places in the continental United States, often in the form of lovely, lovely powder. Take the Soda Springs off ramp from Interstate 80, and a few short miles brings you to the ski resorts, from small and family friendly, to the “in” resort for old, extremely well connected San Francisco money, Sugar Bowl. Sugar Bowl, incidentally, is on the backside of the Serene Lakes community, to the east. RG LLC, having bought a large, well treed property immediately to the east of Serene Lakes, lost no time in entering into a deal with Sugar Bowl, wherein Sugar Bowl would support lifts, and runs, carved out of the ridge, so Royal Gorge LLC’s planned “Ski Camp”, a mere 600 units or so, would have a back door “portal” to Sugar Bowl. To investors, Royal Gorge LLC crowed, “With the board-certified, signed letter of intent between Royal Gorge and Sugar Bowl, Royal Gorge will offer the largest combined cross-country and downhill ski experience in North America.”

Of course, there is the small problem that skiers would have to be competent enough to ski a double black diamond run to use the portal, but I’m sure they’ll work out something-maybe a “portkey” a la Harry Potter? Also, Sugar Bowl has been making mighty efforts to present itself as a “green” resort, but now they’ve agreed to participate in what will in reality amount to a huge expansion of Sugar Bowl- that’s not exactly green, is it? Instead of a color, the phrase “scorched earth” comes to mind, when one thinks of all the habitat destruction that will come with new runs and lifts between the two areas.

The plans for Ski Camp, as you may imagine, incensed the Serene Lakes Community. An enclave of cabins, nestled around two small connected alpine lakes, would suddenly have 3 and 4 story condominium blocks looming across the road, with the hillside denuded for ski runs, ski lifts, and parking lots. Royal Gorge LLC had imagined a pleasant stroll in the woods towards the entitlement of their lands; instead they were met with an avalanche of protest, from homeowner’s groups, and individuals. Web pages aimed at the development sprang up overnight, and environmental organizations suddenly had Donner Summit on their radar, even before Royal Gorge had filed any official plans with Placer County.

Sensing that the going was getting tough, Royal Gorge LLC did what any sensible developer would do- they hired a lobbyist. Actually, they hired another lobbyist. Their first lobbyist, over in Reno, helped them make friends with Republicans, but that just wasn’t going to be enough. You see, what I forgot to mention is that, asides from an angry group of homeowners, the universe of those who may object to the proposed development is practically limitless. Despite the fact a whole lot of snow falls up at Donner Summit, it melts pretty quickly, and, aside from the small amount stored in the existing lakes at the Summit, the snow melt is a constituent of the headwaters of the North Fork of the American River, which is a State and Federally designated Wild and Scenic River, and the headwaters of the South Yuba River. Last year, Royal Gorge LLC proposed damming Van Norden Meadow, a major component of the headwaters of the South Yuba River, to supply water for their proposed development. Just this past month they proposed as one of their alternative sources of water, a 60 to 70 foot high, quarter mile across dam on Serena Creek, a tributary to the North Fork of the American River. Something there is that does not love a dam, and each of these very special places has a constituency that will oppose any attempts to dam them.

The flip side of water is sewage effluent. Treated sewage effluent for Donner Summit is dumped into the South Yuba River, although in warmer months it’s sprayed on the small ski resort’s hill to evaporate. There are limits to how much effluent the river can take, and, downstream users of the water from the South Yuba River are starting to get a little pickier about what’s coming out of their kitchen taps. They’re showing a marked partiality for pure water, and aren’t happy with Royal Gorge LLC’s proposals to double the effluent load.

Add in old growth woods that will be cut down, a couple of species of special concern, if not the odd endangered species or two, the prospect of two artificial lakes blasted in wetlands, and the fact that Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort would be covered in a sprawl of buildings, with skiers forced to use rubber mats to cross the roads and parking lots–the campers are not happy with all the environmental degradation about to be visited on the Summit, and they’re not going to sit back meekly and watch it happen.

So, lobbyist number 2, Darius Anderson and his Platinum Advisors Group was hired. To say Darius Anderson is well connected is like saying California is a state. He works both sides of the aisle, but his real depth is in Democrats, especially San Francisco Democrats (who are thick on the ground at the privately held Sugar Bowl, by the way–including Nancy Pelosi and family). He worked to retire Gavin Newsom’s campaign debts from his first mayoral election, and he’s also well acquainted with scions of the Boxer and Pelosi clans. You’d need an elaborate flow chart to show who’s related to whom (sometimes literally) in San Francisco among this group, and who has worked for whom at one time or the other, and a whole separate flow chart for Darius Anderson’s various development interests, conducted from the lovely San Francisco ferry building. Add in his hugely popular Christmas jaunts to Cuba, where he takes along a glittering entourage of the well connected, including on this last trip someone associated with the San Francisco Chronicle, and you get an idea of why Darius Anderson is referred to as “the man with the golden rolodex”

Nobody’s quite figured out what Darius Anderson has done yet to advance Royal Gorge’s interests, but if anyone can do it, he can. It would be sad indeed to think that Democrats, who particularly around election time court “green interests”, will be ultimately the ones who aid and abet developers in despoiling Donner Summit–but, as developers who are big Democrat donors have done a pretty good job of paving the central valley, it would be no real surprise. In a state where the senior Senator, Dianne Feinstein, is on the brink of jumping off the dock with Arnold Schwarzenegger to support a colossal dam building bond, certainly a nail in the coffin for the beleaguered Delta, nobody really expects Democrats to do more than pay lip service to “green” values.

If you’re starting to think it sounds like the “Perils of Pauline” for Donner Summit, and that development is barreling down those intercontinental railroad tracks up here, with their historic tunnels, you’d be right. However, an unlikely thing might rescue us all, or at least give us breathing room. Our economy, which is bringing us no joy, may slow down the pressures for development, as banks might not be as quick to dole out money as they were just a few years ago. Investors might just be getting a little skittish, you think?

And that $34 million dollars Royal Gorge LLC splashed out a few years ago- what will become of that? The answer there depends on whether the local counties, their eyes agog at the thought of an increased property tax base, feel it is their duty to act as insurers for what was essentially a $34 milllion dollar gamble. Will they change the zoning, and allow developers to plaster 1000 new units up in an environmentally sensitive area? Until we find out the answer, we, as well as the wilderness, will be very much on edge on Donner Summit.

Let’s hope we’re not pushed over the edge.

If you’d like to read more about Donner Summit and the proposed Royal Gorge development, please visit

KATHRYN GRAY can be reached at: