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Developer has mixed feelings about project

September 13, 2010

After more than eight years of litigation and appeals, the Whitney Portal Preserve housing development in Lone Pine appears to be moving forward – in one of the worst economies in recent memory.
Jim Walters, a retired ethics professor from Claremont University, purchased a piece of the Cuffe Guest Ranch off of Whitney Portal Road in 2002, in hopes of developing 27, two-and-a half-acre lots with new homes – a plan met with support by those eager to see an economic boost and opposition by those worried about impacts to the world-famous Mt. Whitney viewshed.
Following a lengthy cycle of lawsuits and appeals, Walters received permission in August from the California Department of Real Estate to sell the first phase of lots.
Walters is preparing to sell three lots at the beginning of next year.
“This is good news,” Walters said of his plans to sell off the first phase, “I just wish it had come at a time when the housing market wasn’t so volatile.”
He has already laid infrastructure for three parcels on Whitney Portal Road. Electricity has been run to a fourth parcel, which will eventually be turned into a fire department substation.
Walters said once the first three lots are sold, he will be able install the underground utility infrastructure to nine more lots, which will be sold in the second phase. Walters hopes that by that time, the housing market and economy will have stabilized.
When he first proposed the project, Walters told Inyo County planners that he envisioned restrictions for the development, including height for buildings, dark skies for lights and setbacks to preserve views of the Sierra from the valley floor.
Despite those self-imposed restrictions, the Save Round Valley Alliance took issue with the project, saying it would take away from the scenic nature of Whitney Portal Road.
The SRVA hired San Francisco lawfirm Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger to contest the project.
The Inyo County Board of Supervisors and the county Planning Commission voted four different times to approve the project, with each vote resulting in an appeal from SVRA lawyers – twice to the Board of Supervisors, and once each to the Superior Court and to the Fourth District Appellate Court in Riverside.
In 2007, Walters lost an appeal in the appellate court when the SRVA claimed, and the courts agreed, that the Environmental Impact Report on the project inadequately addressed the feasibility of a land swap with the Bureau of Land Management that would allow Walters to build on a different piece of property.
When Walters lost the lawsuit, Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger was able to bill him for $500,000 in attorney fees, which he is appealing in a pending case.
Walters amended the EIR and again received approval from Inyo County in 2008, a decision that the SRVA did not appeal, which allowed Walters to move forward with his project.
“It’s been a very long haul,” Walters said in a press release, “and I wouldn’t have made the purchase, if I’d known the hell I and my wife would go through.”
During litigation, Doug Thompson, a Lone Pine resident and owner of the Mt. Whitney Store at Whitney Portal and Mt. Whitney Hostel in Lone Pine, testified before Inyo County leaders that the project posed no threat to the environment as it is located in the Lone Pine Creek community, and in Great Basin sagebrush steppe habitat, devoid of any trees.
“This development will benefit Lone Pine because it provides residents and incoming professionals an area for their dream home,” Kathleen New, director the Lone Pine Chamber said in a press release. “This is the most significant residential development in southern Inyo County for nearly half a century.”
For now, Walters is hoping to see the Portal Preserve become reality.
“I don’t know if anybody has any money left in this bad economy,” he said, “but I hope somebody does.”

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