In perhaps a more sensible world, the 325,000-acre Lake Tahoe Basin would not be governed by two rival states, a handful of small cities, and embittered factions of environmentalists and resort-casino owners. Nor would it have miles of open highway or 55,000 year-round residents. Rather, it would be treated like the Grand Canyon, the Everglades, or any other of America's major natural wonders.
Instead, pioneers, skiers, and gamblers got to the Tahoe area before the federal government could—and, from many environmentalists' perspective, many of them got there at the worst possible time. By the time regional planning arrived, in the form of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the basin had already been widely developed. TRPA sought mainly to bring development to a crawl, even at the possible expense of good, environmentally friendly development.
"Tahoe was built out in the 1960s at the peak of sprawl development. It's a car-oriented infrastructure," said Patrick Wright, executive director of the California Tahoe Conservancy. "I think it's fair to say that the existing rules are a strong disincentive to redevelopment and to smarter growth/SB 375-consistent principles."
Senate Bill 375 is the California law that seeks to reduce per capita vehicle miles traveled through compact development; it applies only to the state's major urban areas. Notably, SB 375 does not apply to Nevada. Interests on the eastern side of the lake have traditionally favored more development—and the economic growth that accompanies it—and have often bristled at having to collaborate with California. Any successful plan will have to find a compromise amid this tension.
Short of turning back the clock 50 years or allowing casinos to run wild, the new plan is attempting to gingerly update the plan so that it promotes redevelopment in preferred locations.
The result has been an ongoing feud over the nature of development in the basin. The latest—and perhaps last—round in that feud centers on the long-awaited release of the draft Tahoe Regional Plan Update, by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. The draft plan was made public in April; the TRPA board is expected to vote on it by December, following a public outreach process.
If the preferred alternative is adopted, the plan will attempt to bring smart growth to the great outdoors. Critics say, however, that what's good for the big city is not so good for the great outdoors.
"It's not about general land use policies or changes and directions that we have to go as a country," said David McClure of the North Tahoe Citizens Action Alliance. "This is in the Lake Tahoe Basin…it has very limited geography and infrastructure…and a set of environmental thresholds that are not established anywhere else in the country."
The plan update, if and when it is adopted, will be the first comprehensive plan update for the Tahoe Basin since 1987. For years, activists and public officials on both sides of the state line have been clamoring for the update. The update process commenced in 2005 but stalled several times until the Nevada legislature forced TRPA's hand with a threat to pull out of the bi-state compact. All the while, water clarity in the lake—which many use as a benchmark not only for the health of the North America's largest alpine lake but also as a stand-in for a range of other environmental measures—has slowly diminished.
Lake Tahoe's clarity now stands at around 70 feet of depth; the interim target is 75 feet, with a threshold standard of 97 feet.
While the plan aims to keep particles out of the water and keep streams and trees healthy, several of the plan's five alternatives—including the frontrunner Alternative C, which Cowen said has been vetted by the Regional Plan Update Committee of the TRPA board—rely on a strategy that has become a staple of major metropolitan areas: smart growth.
Though cities like South Lake Tahoe and Nevada's Incline Village are not exactly metropoli, TRPA planners say that by clustering growth in small town centers and around existing resort infrastructure—such as the basin's major ski areas—the plan will lead to reduced driving, pollution, storm water runoff, and other adverse impacts on the basin's ecological health.
Permitted densities would depend on the location of a proposed development. Building heights would be permitted up to four stories (56 feet) in town centers, six stories (95 feet) in the "Regional Center," and 197 feet in the "High Density Tourist District."
Some city officials say that the plan fits nicely with their own cities' respective visions.
"We've identified areas throughout the basin where we want to target for concentrating development that is …linked by alternative transportation…and that is consistent in the city's general plan," said Hilary Roverud, director of Development Services for the City of South Lake Tahoe. "I certainly believe that will bring environmental benefit."
The plan includes incentives that, say TRPA officials, will encourage landowners to abandon and restore parcels that contribute to pollution and swap them for parcels within existing urban footprints. The hoped-for result is that residents and tourists alike will arrive at the basin, park once, and then explore by foot, boat, and bus.
"The Environmental Redevelopment Program (is) to encourage moving properties away from our sensitive areas…incentivizing them to move into the town centers where there are more services available, people have more opportunity to get out of their car," said TRPA spokesperson Kristi Boosma.
TRPA planners say that, of 1,100 acres of sensitive stream habitat that is slated for restoration, nearly half remains in private hands. A few strategic swaps could, therefore, make a major difference. The plan treats these potential areas as commodities whose value landowners can capture by restoring them privately.
"Those development commodities that we've used as growth controls we're now using as incentives to make it economically feasible to have private investors do a lot of the restoration for us," said TRPA spokesperson Jeff Cowen, in a joint interview with Boosma.
TRPA officials and other supporters call this strategy "environmental redevelopment."
Though the prospect of promoting development in order to achieve conservation goals may seem paradoxical, TRPA officials say that it can go a long way towards undoing some of the ecological damage being inflicted by existing developments. The vast majority of the basin was developed in an era when environmental concerns were minimal. That kind of development led to the creation of the TRPA in the first place.
"We have a code of ordinances that was written in 1987 when it was really important to stop runaway growth and to control overdevelopment," said Cowen. "About 80% of what's in the basin was built before TRPA, so what we need to do is create an environment where people want to remodel, redevelop, rebuild."
Many developments were built without safeguards to filter storm water runoff, and some say that even renovating existing buildings has been hampered by a burdensome TRPA permitting process. And because of rampant development in the 1960s and 1970s, any strategies for restoring the basin and hitting TMDL targets must by necessity target those older developments.
Cowen said that a change in 1-2% of the basin's 43,000 residential parcels could be enough to yield significant benefits. Cowen said that the basin's 3,1000 remaining developable units amount to the square footage of a Walmart Superstore; "that's not urbanization as I would think of the term," he said.
In exchange for this swap, landowners may be allowed to build at higher densities. Even though the original Tahoe Compact puts a hard cap on development and year-round population growth, opponents of the plan fear that the plan's eager embrace of "environmental redevelopment" is a Trojan horse.
"With their plan they're just going to fix a 2,500 population increase," said Ann Nichols, President of North Tahoe Preservation Alliance and member of the Lake Tahoe Federal Advisory Committee; her group is aligned with McClure's. "But they don't count all the second- and third homeowners and tourist accommodations."
Nichols questioned TRPA's ability to actually compel property owners to do the sort of restoration that the plan calls for. She and McClure agreed that the status quo often prevents owners of small properties from redeveloping them, but she speculated that with lax enforcement, property owners would reap the benefits of land swaps without actually investing in environmentally friendly restoration.
"It actually works in reverse and keeps people from doing what they're supposed to do," said Nichols.
Though Wright, of the Tahoe Conservancy, said that he supports TRPA's plan, he said that "whether or not land use regulatory changes alone are going to be enough to actually stimulate redevelopment versus make it easier and not be an impediment is… an open question."
Even the smart growth approach strikes critics as suspicious, primarily because the area does not have consistent commuting patterns and established large population base.
"The application of this growth and so-called smart growth principles is being misapplied here because it's basically been co-opted by the mountain resort development industry," said McClure. "They're using those principles, or misusing them, to justify $200-$500 million resort development projects in Lake Tahoe."
Though McClure and Nichols both said that they are not opposed to all development, they are wary of large developments and of the impact that tourists can have. They noted as well that the plan's transit infrastructure—detailed in an accompanying Regional Transportation Plan—may not be robust enough to coax visitors out of their cars. Cowen countered that, with concentrated development, tourists can walk out the back door of their hotels and reach ski slopes and hiking trails without driving at all.
"Clearly, concentrated development will help support transit systems," said Wright. "It will help provide walkable communities. I think the question is, how great are the benefits? What kind of critical mass do you need to support a healthy transit system?"
Many in the region say that large resorts may hold the key to the area's economic health. The plan has come about at a moment of profound economic change in the basin. Casino gambling has nosedived, in part because of competition from Indian casinos in California; casino employment in South Lake Tahoe is down to about 3,200 workers, from over 7,000 in the mid-1990s. The area's economy is increasingly relying on visitors who come for recreation and natural splendor rather than for smoke-shrouded tables deep inside a casino.
"It's no longer about coming in a bus with 40 other people and going into a casino," said Betty "B" Gorman, president & CEO of the Lake Tahoe South Shore Chamber of Commerce, which supports the plan. "There's no one here that doesn't understand the importance of protecting the environment and engaging people in a better understanding of what that means."
Moreover, with more visitors may come a greater demand for employees—who may or may not be able to live in the basin.
"If South Lake gets revitalized and we don't have enough affordable housing and we don't have adequate transit, we're just going to have more people commuting up the hill from outlying areas," said Wright.
Immediately "down the hill" from South Lake Tahoe lies the Nevada capital of Carson City, which, in an indirect way, has led to the drafting of the current plan.
Last year the Nevada Legislature based Senate Bill 271, which called for Nevada to pull out of the bi-state compact if TRPA did not meet certain conditions. Supporters of the bill said that they were frustrated with the delay in updating the plan and conditioned the threatened pull-out on a timely draft. TRPA's board includes members from both states.
Critics of SB 271 contend that it is a way for Nevada to force TPRA to loosen restrictions on development. A letter from four environmental groups—including Nichols'—to TRPA claims that while "TRPA was established to protect the fragile eco-system of the region…SB271 demands, among other things, more attention to economic stimulation and profit."
Whether or not that claim is true, there is a consensus that the law did motivate TRPA to quicken its process.
"I think it's significantly shaped the timing," said Wright. "Whether you're a supporter or a detractor of it, there's no question that the two states have gotten together….I don't know that it significantly affected the details."
TRPA officials are more glib.
"All the update does is meet the timeline requirement of SB 271," said Cowen.
Kristi Boosma, Jeff Cowen, spokespeople, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency 775.588.4547
Betty "B" Gorman, President & CEO, Lake Tahoe South Shore Chamber of Commerce, 775-588-1728
Hilary Roverud, Dir. of Development Services, City of South Lake Tahoe, 530.542.6024
Patrick Wright, Executive Director, California Tahoe Conservancy 530.543.6002