Every developer that has ever built in Mammoth Lakes has to face the question: “What about snow storage?”
Mammoth Lakes is fresh off of a winter that dropped 492 inches of snow, leaving Town staff and anyone related to snow removal with a form of Stockholm Syndrome. That issue is currently exacerbated by a permit situation with the Forest Service.
Mayor Bill Sauser told the Sheet, “For the last thirty years the Town had use of the pit.” This ‘pit’ is a privately contracted area on the north side of Route 203 between Meridian Boulevard and the Forest Service Welcome Center. The Forest Service grants the Town the right to use the pit and the Town contracts with a snow removal company to move snow to said pit.
“We used to have a per-load fee, and we charged them at the snow pit based on the size of the load. Just recently, the Forest Service asked us to do an environmental review to see if there was diesel contamination,” said Sauser, explaining his own experience with snow removal. He said some truck drivers would put a little bit of diesel in the bed so the snow would slide out easier.
Gordon Martin, the District Ranger of the Mammoth and Mono Lake Ranger Districts, told the Sheet, “We were concerned about the truck drivers that would spray diesel in the beds and we wanted the operation to be done in an environmentally friendly manner.”
According to Sauser, the Town conducted an environmental review and did not find substantial amounts of diesel.
During the most recent permit negotiations, which happen every couple of years, the Forest Service told the Town that charging people for using the pit constitutes a for-profit business which is not allowed within the confines of the land usage permit.
Additionally, the Forest Service asked the Town to hire a “gatekeeper” at the pit to ensure that A) truck drivers weren’t using diesel and B) only people who had official usage of the land use permit were dumping their snow there.
Over the last thirty years, developers have had the option to build in a section for on-site snow storage or utilize off-site storage whether it be through the Town or a private contractor. If they chose off-site storage through the Town, the snow would be delivered to the pit.
The entities that chose off-site storage through the Town have appropriate usage under the Town’s land use permit with the Forest Service.
The Town of Mammoth Lakes public works director, Grady Dutton, told the Sheet that in a recent ruling made by the state, “Snow management needed to be compensated by a prevailing wage,” which by Dutton’s estimate increased the cost by 15-30%. Sauser explained why, “When we have to pay a loader, operator and inspector prevailing wage and they are working 24/7, it explodes the cost.”
According to Town Manager Dan Holler, “There could be up to $200,000 for snow removal costs that won’t be reimbursed.”
The Town allocated an emergency storage for this money but ultimately would eat the cost. Holler pointed out that some of this estimated $200,000 would be for their own snow removal so the number is slightly inflated.
On December 18, Mammoth Lakes Town Council set aside $770,000 from the gas tax fund for operation of the snow pit. According to the staff report, this will have a “negative impact on near-term road construction projects.”
On the bright side, “A portion of the Town’s direct costs will be reimbursed by the State through the regular process by which the Town receives a reimbursement of up to 50% of snow removal costs.” Holler’s estimate appears to be a good ballpark.
So how is the Town going to make up the other costs for snow removal? Holler explained the process, “We hired a contractor that manages the pit and they have a set rate [per hour] for the number of hours they operate. We don’t know how many trucks will go in but the contractor tracks everyone that goes in or out.” The Town will charge permitted businesses/ people a per-load fee at the end of the year based on previous per load fees. That fee does not factor in the cost of the contractor managing the pit.
Holler explained it as a multi-faceted operation where the Town loses more money if it is a light winter and the contractor is just sitting there racking up hours while the Town recieves no small fee from users of the pit.
The Town is subsidizing a percentage of snow storage through the hourly rate and hoping they make up some of it.
The Town is going through all of this because they couldn’t go back on their rate commitments to Mammoth Lakes residents just because the Forest Service changed their contract with them.
“It is certainly an odd deal for the Forest Service,” said Holler.
Martin agreed, “Nowhere else is this something that happens. We asked other ski mountains, ‘what do you do?’ and they either had private land that was being used or some other system. This is mostly because Mammoth Lakes is completely landlocked by Forest Service land.”
Dutton did praise the Town’s ability to deal with these unique situations, “There are things people complain about, but one thing this town does extremely well is move snow.”