Tahoe’s Future Hanging in the Balance -TRPA Failing To Uphold Its Mission TAKE ACTION

March 20, 2023

Read the article reference below and TAKE ACTION. The TRPA Governing Board is meeting on Wednesday, March 22 at 11am to review and possibly amend the Tahoe Area Plan. Click here for the agenda and public comment instructions.

Below is a link to a well researched article depicting how TRPA is not acting in alignment with their mission. The below link to the Reno Gazette Journal will allow some to read it without a subscription. The more on-line views, the greater its staying power in the “popular pieces” in the RJG app. If you are unable to read using the link below, the content of the article has also been provided below in this post.

https://www.rgj.com/story/opinion/2023/03/16/tahoes-future-hangs-in-the-balance-again/70017055007/

Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos lives in Tahoe and volunteers with grassroots Tahoe Basin groups. She was not paid to write this piece.

Note that all words in green are active links to the background information.

Tahoe’s Future Hangs in the Balance – Again

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) governing board will convene with a pivotal item on its agenda as soon as March 22. Few of Tahoe’s 55,000+ residents have time to monitor TRPA, but now is the time to pay attention. 

That’s because this bi-state agency’s governing board decisions determine the Tahoe Basin’s future. Formed in 1969, TRPA is mandated to protect the Basin through land-use regulations; development has been limited intentionally. 

The first Tahoe Area Regional Plan contained scientific underpinnings and vital evaluations that formally introduced the concepts of carrying capacity and environmental thresholds to protect the Lake and its environment. Last fully updated in 2012 to allow area plans and amended in 2021, each Regional Plan revision has further undermined TRPA’s once strict land use rules, threatening the Lake.   

Unintended Consequences

Tahoe Basin residents and local business owners know well that affordable and workforce housing is in short supply in large part based on a short-sighted 2004 TRPA governing board decision approving short-term rentals (STRs) as a permitted “residential use.” This led to the conversion of thousands of condos and houses, once available as long-term rentals for locals, to become STRs for tourists. This drastically reduced local housing options throughout the Tahoe Basin.

Washoe County’s Tahoe Area Plan (TAP), last updated in 2021, followed years of careful deliberations and community input. To encourage development of more affordable housing, Washoe County’s TAP mandated that “single family dwellings shall only be allowed in the Incline Village Commercial regulatory zone when they are part of a mixed-use development or when they are affordable housing units.”

Working against its own affordable housing goals, the Washoe Board of County Commissioners in January inexplicably voted to advance to TRPA an Area Plan amendment to allow luxury condominiums in an area originally limited to mixed use affordable housing and commercial.

These 40 units, already advertised online starting at $2.5M, are not affordable to a first responder, schoolteacher, healthcare, or service worker. Worse, the developer’s amendment encompasses all Special Area 1 and doesn’t define how much of the mixed-use project must be commercial space. The County and the developer team erroneously claim this significant TAP amendment won’t produce environmental or traffic impacts.

It’s misleading for the County to say the amendment will not have broader impacts. If TRPA greenlights it, this code change will be the impetus for redevelopment along SR 28 and beyond. This large area along Tahoe Boulevard, zoned commercial until the 2021 Area Plan change, could become high-rise luxury condominiums effectively pricing out many locals as well as existing small businesses now in SA1.

Broad redevelopment deserves comprehensive and well-publicized community engagement as part of a larger TAP revision process — not one-off amendments pushed through for the convenience of developers.

This code change would not only lessen the probability of affordable housing across the Basin, but it would clear the way for increasing the height and density of structures throughout the Basin.

If TRPA’s governing board approves the proposed TAP changes it would unravel  50+ years of work to prevent the build out of the Tahoe Basin and exacerbate existing overtourism problems.

Increased density puts Basin communities and visitors at risk in the event of an emergency evacuation. It also increases air and water pollution. That’s because increases in people and density bring increases in cars, boats, and recreational vehicles and related emissions and trash, including micro-plastics and algae, responsible for a 70% Lake clarity loss, according to the latest UC Davis report.

Developers are queuing in anticipation.

Developers Tried Before to Control Tahoe

Will the Tahoe Basin remain a natural wonder, or will it be sold off to the highest bidders?

Developers and government officials hungry for revenue and tax windfalls at the expense of the Lake environment aren’t new. They were foreseen in a California Law Review article in 1964:

“The unwillingness of the five counties to subordinate sectarian economic interests in rapid growth and development of the lake basin to the national interest in preserving the lake as a natural resource has been manifested not only in deficiencies of the present zoning laws, but also in frequent departures from existing controls. Responsibility for inadequacies in approach lies partly with local government operating in county seats geographically and economically removed from the Lake Tahoe basin and partly with the permanent residents. Neither group has recognized that Tahoe must be protected with restrictions on private enterprise in the interest of conservation. Strong limitations are as appropriate at Tahoe as in any national park. A thriving metropolis characterized by towering skyscrapers and blazing neon signs is no more appropriate at Tahoe than at Crater Lake, Yellowstone, Yosemite, or other of the nation’s exceptional physical assets.”

It’s worth noting none of the five Washoe County Commissioners and only 3 of the 14 TRPA governing board reside in the Tahoe Basin.

The Law Review authors held out hope that a new governing body would prevent destruction of the Tahoe Basin, writing that a:

“Tahoe Regional Planning Commission offers grounds for optimism with respect to sound area development…the master plan proposed by this agency provides a firm starting point for regulation of Lake Tahoe’s future growth.”

One of a Kind Natural Beauty Requires Protection

The Tahoe Basin straddles Nevada and California. Nevada’s side holds seven communities in Douglas County and two in Washoe County. California’s side includes one city (South Lake Tahoe) and eight communities within two counties, Placer and El Dorado. All rely on one two-lane ring road around the Lake to reach one of a handful of rural highways into and out of the Basin. The Caldor wildfire and extreme weather events highlight just how critical these roads are to public safety, particularly when they’re closed due to natural disasters such as this winter’s dangerous snow accumulation.   

During the past century, there have been several attempts to put massive developments in Tahoe. Each time stewards of the lake, particularly volunteer groups like the League to Save Lake Tahoe, the Village League, Mountain Area Preservation Foundation, North Tahoe Preservation Alliance, Friends of West Shore, Sierra Watch, Save Tahoe Forests, Sierra Forest Legacy, and Tahoe Area Sierra Club have mobilized to protect the Tahoe Basin and guard the Lake’s clarity so future generations can experience Tahoe’s unblemished natural beauty.

Housing Priorities and Environmental Impact Reviews

Tahoe, without the proposed developments, already gets an estimated 60 million visitors each year to its 207,000 acres. The Great Smokey Mountains, the National Park with the most annual visitors, gets only 14 million to its 522,419 acres. Given its singular beauty and priceless ecosystem, Tahoe deserves the same care and respect afforded to our nation’s other most precious natural assets.

TRPA is also in the process of considering new rules that would allow increased height, density, and coverage for buildings within town centers to attract developers, presumably, to build affordable housing in the Tahoe Basin. Residents voiced disapproval. Critically missing right now are:

  • a Basin-wide cap on STRs;
  • strict, enforceable controls on how any new housing will be used;
  • a traffic study and evacuation plan that includes all residents and visitors;
  • an honest, comprehensive Environmental Impact Study that looks at the totality of the proposed new developments and their simultaneous impacts on the Basin and the Lake.

TRPA has effectively skirted a thorough Environmental Impact Study by approving one development at a time, allowing developers — and local government agencies favoring development and more tax revenues — to determine there are no impacts. That’s letting the fox design the hen house.

TRPA risks losing its credibility and community trust if it prioritizes frivolous luxury developments over its duty to be Lake Tahoe’s watchdog and protector.  Community members can voice their concerns to TRPA about Area Plan amendments and other code changes by sending emails to jstock@TRPA.gov and the governing board directly, or public comments to mambler@TRPA.gov.

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