Victory in the Fight to Save Mount Whitney’s Portal Preserve


Decision points way to land swap


In a final decision released December 17, 2007, the California Court of Appeals sided with Sierra Nevada conservationists and concluded that development approvals in the Mount Whitney area “violate state law.”

The Court action overturns Inyo County approvals of the “Whitney Portal Preserve” project, a remote subdivision of 27 luxury homes along Whitney Portal Road, the sole paved access route for the tallest mountain in the continental United States. 

SRVA Advocates for Smart Growth, the plaintiffs in the case, have long advocated for a better blueprint for development in the region.  They argued that Inyo County decision-makers should have considered the possibility of a land swap, whereby the threatened landscape could be protected and growth could be focused closer to existing development. 

The panel of judges agreed.  “We agree with SRVA that the analysis of the land exchange alternative is legally insufficient and reverse on that ground.  The failure…effectively preclude[d] informed decision-making and informed public participation, thereby thwarting the statutory goals of the EIR process.”

“The proposed development was clearly an unacceptable threat to the Mount Whitney area and the Owens Valley,” said Jennifer Fenton of the grassroots SRVA Advocates for Smart Growth.  “We look forward to working with public agencies, private developers, and local residents to find a win-win solution that also protects the resources of the Sierra Nevada.”

State law requires that environmental review provide decision-makers with adequate information to assess the impacts of a proposed project, including alternatives to the proposal.  But, according to the final ruling, environmental review for this project “…includes only the barest of facts…, vague and unsupported conclusions about aesthetics, views, and economic objectives, and no independent analysis whatsoever of relevant considerations.”

The decision is another important example of citizen action to stop illegal approvals of Sierra development.  “We are delighted with this decision,” said Tamara Galanter of Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP, counsel for SRVA.  “The 47 page ruling reflects a careful analysis of the applicable law and recognizes the importance of considering alternatives as part of the environmental review process.”

Conservationists throughout California look to the proposed project as a dangerous precedent for leapfrog development in the fragile Eastern Sierra landscape.  “This is an important victory for the entire Sierra Nevada,” said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch.  “It’s another great example of how people are standing up to defend the Sierra landscape – from Mount Whitney in the south to Dyer Mountain in Lassen County.”

The Sierra Fund raised money to support this lawsuit from donors throughout California. “We are proud to have contributed to the success of this cutting edge lawsuit,” noted Elizabeth “Izzy” Martin, CEO of The Sierra Fund.  “Thank you to everyone that contributed to this effort.

Now conservationists will seek to work with the landowner to reach a collaborative resolution to the contentious issue.  “Our goal was never simply to win a lawsuit,” said Fenton.  “Our goal is to reach a win-win agreement that protects the land and encourages responsible development.  We look forward to taking that next step.”

Advocates for Smart Growth

  Jennifer Fenton (831) 644-0924
  Tom Mooers (530) 265-2849

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