Planned Airport Expansion Divides California Ski Town

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• Hundreds of trout streams and lakes, deer and elk breeding grounds, game-bird flyways—all within six hours' drive of Los Angeles.

The Eastside is so commodious that it can take years to get to know. Larger than Yosemite and Yellowstone combined, it lacks firm borders. Locals regard its heart as the corridor along the California-Nevada border between Bridgeport and Independence, a magical seam where the Sierra meets the Great Basin desert. A historical quirk has so far prevented much sprawl: Early last century, the city of Los Angeles bought hundreds of thousands of Owens Valley acres for the water rights, pumping the water south and locking that once fertile valley into parched underdevelopment.

California families have long been coming here for affordable vacations: in summer for fishing, camping, horse packing, and mountain climbing, and in winter for skiing on Mammoth Mountain—11,053 feet (3,369 meters) high, with some of the deepest powder and longest descents in the West.

But if the airport expands, tourism of a different magnitude—perhaps 10,000 new units over the next ten years—would come to Mammoth Lakes, current population just over 7,000. Andrea Lawrence, an Olympic gold medalist in slalom and giant slalom (1952), has lived on the Eastside since the late 60s and served as a county supervisor for 16 years. She calls the expansion program "grossly inappropriate. The airport and plans for an industrial park at its entrance pay no compliment to the land here, to this unique recreational treasure." Lawrence has already seen Mammoth fill with 5,000 condos, but developers previously seemed more inclined to work out compromises with preservationists, such as clustering units to leave open space.

Owen Maloy, a longtime resident and retired aerospace consultant, says that the idea of turning Mammoth into a major destination is "myth here, a civic religion." He's graphed air traffic rates at comparable resorts. "The marketing estimates on passenger arrivals are way out of line. They're being used to justify something stupendous."

Mammoth's community development director, Mike Vance, counters that "the town's already zoned to grow to this extent," adding "so we might as well do it right." Doing it right means creating a pedestrian-friendly town center, siting the hundreds of new housing units carefully, and avoiding the mistakes of Aspen or Vail, where soaring rents drove out people needed for services. Even Maloy concedes, "the town has been pretty good at standing up to Intrawest on housing for workers," requiring that 60 percent of additional employees be housed within town boundaries. A billion-dollar financial commitment can create its own reality, but slow-growth opponents of the plan can claim victory—for now. The town is proceeding doggedly with the steps needed for the full environmental review, but it could be years before anyone knows whether those 757s will ever touch down on the tarmac here.

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