REAL ESTATE Q&A: MAMMOTH’S GREEN NEW SPIEL
By Paul Oster
Q: We read that many of the younger community leaders are taking strong environmental positions and even want to make Mammoth Lakes a “green” leader in the resort world. What do you see as the potential effects on Mammoth and the local real estate market?
A: The green and eco-friendly movements are clear trends in both the ski and hospitality industries. The Mammoth community and Alterra need to pay attention.
“Sustainability” has moved from a buzzword to an action item. It goes far beyond banning plastic straws. And it will inevitably impact many aspects of our town down to the smallest Airbnb rental.
While Mammoth Mountain has had a respectable environmental record in the past, it is Vail Resorts that is leading the ski industry in pro-active environmental goals. Their “Commitment to Zero” program includes the goal of zero net emissions by the year 2030 with 50% attainment by 2025. They also look to reduce their waste product stream to zero by 2030 including the elimination of single-use plastics by 2020. They refer to it as the “Epic Promise.” And they are already winning awards for their efforts.
Vail’s goals are quite ambitious, but it represents a trend by many brands to become synonymous with sustainability. It will ultimately prove to be good for business and create a cost effective and efficient operation. The hotel industry in particular has stated new goals; conserving energy and reducing water usage (including reducing guest linen usage), reducing waste, especially plastics, reducing food waste, using greener cleaners, going paperless, and integrating sustainability into the facility design.
Much of this is being driven by the increased societal awareness of needing to be more prudent with resources. But the demographics of the younger generations are the underlying driver. The hospitality industry (which is what Mammoth Lakes is, including a large percentage of the real estate) is especially focused on this future. According to the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research, the Millennial generation will represent 50% of all travelers to and within the United States by 2025. This is the demographic that is demanding sustainability.
As a sidebar, one interesting concept from the hospitality industry about Millennials is what they call “bleisure travel.” The concept is that “the under-40s tend to be a fairly frugal demographic with a work hard, play hard approach to life. These traits have driven one of the most talked-about hotel industry trends to date: so-called bleisure (business/leisure) travel. Combining business and work with leisure travel, bleisure travel represents the best of both worlds. Whether they’re extending a work trip to take advantage of the possibilities offered by a destination or just squeezing in a little sightseeing before or after work, millennials are finding savvy ways to explore the world without taking time off work. Online work makes bleisure travel even more popular.” (People in Mammoth have lived this way for decades.)
Whether it is catering to the bleisure crowd or thinking more sustainably, this is the future. The proposed Yotelpad project in the Village is a classic example of this trend. Future hotel (and condo hotel) proposals here in Mammoth will all have similar sustainability characteristics. And anybody with a short term rental (STR) should be attentive to this trend also.
Like Vail Resorts, one of the most immediate steps is the reduction of single-use plastic items including what the hotel industry refers to as “disposables” (think small shampoo bottles). Mammoth Lakes was ahead of the State in restricting plastic bags. That first step has worked surprisingly well in the reduction of annoying roadside trash. And most of us have become well adapted to this new restriction, including maybe even buying less.
Now plastic straws are being banned and substitutes are being found.
My pet peeve are Keurigs. I think they are a true environmental disaster. There is now almost an entire row at Costco devoted to them. All the plastic, foil, and compostable grounds all end up in the landfill. And if we outlaw plastic straws what about the plastic lids from our favorite coffee shop? Biodegradable products including biodegradable plastic are in the future. But like Vail, the goal should be to eventually reduce the waste stream to zero.
And now there is a movement afoot in Mammoth to eliminate single-use plastic water bottles. This should gain traction. There are some interesting aspects to consider. First and foremost is simple public safety. We highly encourage our guests to stay hydrated while they are here. Between the elevation and the dryness it can be a real problem. I suggest people start pounding water on the drive up. It beats a shortly-after-arrival headache. And even though I rarely use single-use water bottles, I have them immediately available in my office for my guests and clientele. People who feel dehydrated don’t hesitate to grab one.
We are also facing a trash crisis here in Mammoth. Our favorite landfill is set to close in just a few years and there is no immediate alternative (sure, there is all that open space!). We may be hauling our trash to Nevada in the future. But the bottom line is that we need to continually reduce our flow of trash, and single-use plastic bottles are part of the problem. Patagonia can only make so many new jackets out of the stuff.
Another interesting aspect would be eliminating bottled water from the local stores. They might fight the proposition. Or not. Bottled water has to be a pain-in-the-ass. The profit margin is likely to be good but prices aren’t high. But the bulk and the weight of product is absurd. Handling it all can’t feel productive. They’d rather sell avocados.
So the solution is to train everybody to have their own water bottles. Just like our ubiquitous shopping bags. I have my array of BPA-free plastic and stainless steel water bottles. Then we need more opportunities to fill them with quality water (in Mammoth that can mean different things to different people). Maybe the Town and private enterprise will have to offer more opportunities to fill-up, and for the most discriminating people that may include highly filtered water. If single-use water bottles are banned, I can see quality water availability becoming an important amenity in a hotel room or nightly rental.
Beyond single-use water bottles, other single-use plastics will be targeted. Bathroom toiletries are changing in the hotel industry (Marriott and others are already moving in this direction). The trend will follow to STR properties. And maybe growlers from our favorite micro-breweries will become more mainstream.
Our younger community leaders will inevitably push Mammoth Lakes to become a leading green resort in the future. It couldn’t happen in a more appropriate place. It can (and should) become part of the brand. Educating the guests is a big part of it. But the new and big demographic wave is already on board. And I have a feeling Alterra will follow Vail’s lead (the “IKON Promise”). Quite frankly, it is a natural progression.
The Sierra Nevada and the Mammoth region have a long and interesting intersection with environmental consideration and protection. And local real estate has always been impacted. The simple founding and growth of the Sierra Club is at the forefront. And land acquisitions by LADWP (Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power) are an interesting twist. But both have led to the scarcity of privately owned land which is an underlying fundamental of our workforce housing crisis.
The famous Friends of Mammoth case forever altered the benchmark California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) only a couple of years after its establishment in 1969. The ruling in this case substantially changed (forever) the process by which environmental impact reports/studies are conducted. It also added significantly to the cost of developing real estate. That added cost has trickled down to every owner and user.
In 1990, Mammoth Lakes was also ground zero for action by the Environmental Protection Agency for our “dirty air” (some people find that hard to believe). And 30 years later the Town and local property owners are still impacted by this. The dirty air was being caused by two sources; the cinders used by the road crews to give icy roads better traction (they like to call them “abrasives”) and wood smoke pollution caused by open fireplaces. The problem with the cinders is that when the snow melts and they get crushed and become airborne, they are horribly destructive to our lungs. The Town is mandated to sweep the cinders up as soon as practicable after storms.
The wood smoke pollution mandated the change-out of fireplaces and old appliances to EPA certified wood burning stoves. It is about minimizing particulate pollution. These hot-burning inserts eventually led to structure fires which mandated a whole new set of regulations and change-outs that we continue to deal with. But the truly nasty episodes of wood smoke pollution on cold winter nights are a thing of the past here in Mammoth. Call it progress. Today, more and more older condo projects are retrofitting with propane gas for truly clean-burning fireplaces. And burning pellets, which are exempt from EPA mandates, have gone mainstream too.
Becoming a “green resort” is likely to be in Mammoth’s future. I’m planning for it. I think others should too. It would be nice if Ormat (the owner of our local geothermal plant) would play along. But that’s another story. Pisten Bully, the makers of the snow grooming machines just unveiled the first electric groomer. It doesn’t have much range yet, but by 2030 it probably will.
And for the goal of zero net emissions, somebody is going to have to figure out how to capture and utilize all that methane from the grazing and emitting cows that are part of our landscape. And probably the mules too.
Paul Oster is the Broker/Owner of RE/MAX of Mammoth. For other timely real estate information you can go to www.MammothRealEstateBlog.com. For legal, accounting, or construction advice, please seek out the appropriate professional.