Balancing Lake Tahoe

Pristine jewel: Lake Tahoe is also designated as an Outstanding National Resource Water, which is a special designation under the Clean Water Act. Only two other bodies of water have this designation in the Western United States: Mono Lake in California and Crater Lake in Oregon. Photo provided by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

Pristine jewel: Lake Tahoe is also designated as an Outstanding National Resource Water, which is a special designation under the Clean Water Act. Only two other bodies of water have this designation in the Western United States: Mono Lake in California and Crater Lake in Oregon. Photo provided by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

by Adam Lewandowski, Stateline, Nevada

Harmonizing environmental conservation and economic vitality at Lake Tahoe has been the subject of decades of controversy at local, state, and regional levels and one that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It provides lessons for all planners.

Surrounded on all sides by the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains, Lake Tahoe is the tenth deepest lake in the world and one of the clearest, with one being able to see an average 70 feet down into its blue waters. Spanning two states, Lake Tahoe has 75-miles of shoreline and is 22-miles long and 12-miles wide. The surface area of the lake covers 191 square miles. Its greatest depth is 1,645 feet and it averages 1,000 feet in depth.

In the Lake Tahoe region, the natural environment provides the quality of life and outdoor recreation opportunities that attract residents and visitors. The area attracts more visitors each year than Yosemite National Park. However, this large and exceptionally clear alpine lake and the surrounding area is especially susceptible to environmental degradation. Like so many other special Western landscapes, the region has struggled to balance environmental conservation with economic vitality.

Striking a balance by trial and error

LAND USES: Map provided by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

During the 1960s and 1970s a lack of planning and unchecked growth and development in the region caused significant environmental damage. While the economy boomed, over 75 percent of the wetlands and 50 percent of the meadows in the region were paved over and developed. Lake Tahoe, which used to have visibility 100 feet down, had been inundated with stormwater and toxic pollutants that reduced its clarity dramatically. To address this environmental decline, Nevada, California, and the U.S. Congress adopted a unique bi-state regional planning compact that consolidated land use and environmental regulatory authority for portions of two states, five counties and one city in the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA).

After several years of contentious negotiations, lawsuits, and a moratorium on development, TRPA emerged in 1987 with the Lake Tahoe Regional Plan. The plan centralized land use decision-making, included a strict growth control system, established an intricate system of regulating land coverage, and put in place stringent requirements to improve a wide range of environmental conditions and minimize the environmental impact of new projects.

The 1987 Regional Plan made progress towards meeting many of its environmental goals. The loss of clarity in Lake Tahoe slowed and appeared to be stopping. However, the regulatory approach had drawbacks. The regional decision-making process was not well integrated into the planning process of the various local jurisdictions, creating inconsistencies and a long and unpredictable approval process for even small-scale projects.

Although the strict environmental requirements resulted in mitigation of new projects’ impacts, they also served as a disincentive for investment in the region, as well as stopping even environmentally beneficial redevelopment. Many property owners decided to keep their 30- to 50-year-old non-conforming properties rather than comply with the stricter requirements and mitigation measures as required by the Regional Plan. Requirements to retrofit existing structures with water quality improvements had some success, but proved difficult to enforce on the 44,000 individual parcels in the region.

The local economy suffered during the period the 1987 Regional Plan was in place. Unemployment rates in the region were consistently in the double digits, even before the economic downturn; and several schools closed as the region’s population declined below 1987 levels. The economic decline resulted from numerous factors, including the loosening of gaming restrictions throughout the country, which impacted the casinos that thrived on the Nevada state line. Yet many believed that the Regional Plan also contributed to the economic decline.

The planning process

TOWN CENTERS: The updated Lake Tahoe Regional Plan seeks to create compact pedestrian friendly town centers. The plan incentivizes re-development consistent with strict design standards, and provides incentives to transfer development potential from outlying and environmentally sensitive lands into town centers. Photo provided by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

TOWN CENTERS: The updated Lake Tahoe Regional Plan seeks to create compact pedestrian friendly town centers. The plan incentivizes re-development consistent with strict design standards, and provides incentives to transfer development potential from outlying and environmentally sensitive lands into town centers. Photo provided by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

In 2004, TRPA began a process to update its Regional Plan. The update involved a long and inclusive visioning process that considered significant changes or wholesale replacement of every element in the plan. While nearly everyone involved agreed that an update was long overdue, stakeholders had difficulty bridging the polarized positions of environmental and development interests, and in reconciling the viewpoints of Nevada and California. The concerns about the 1987 Regional Plan’s impact on the economy came to a head in 2011 when the Nevada Legislature passed a bill that would dissolve the bi-state planning compact unless an updated Regional Plan was approved by 2015.

In early 2011, TRPA narrowed the scope of the plan update to keep elements of the existing plan that were working and refocus on critical priorities. These priorities included: promoting redevelopment that would result in environmental improvements and community revitalization; streamlining permitting processes by integrating the regional and local planning systems; and promoting more pedestrian-friendly, communities.

In another key change to the process, a Regional Plan Update Committee was created and included six members of the TRPA Governing Board with representation from Nevada, California, and local jurisdictions. The committee considered and revised plan amendments line-by-line in a series of 17 all-day public meetings. These committee meetings allowed for candid but civil face-to-face discussions of the pros and cons of each amendment with stakeholders, decision-makers, and staff from TRPA and local jurisdictions. By the end, the committee unanimously endorsed almost 90 percent of the proposed plan amendments.

To address topics where strong disagreement remained, the governors of the two states appointed cabinet level officials to negotiate a set of compromises. The administration officials consulted with representatives from local governments, environmental advocates, business interests, and technical experts and produced a set of recommendations addressing the issues that were not already unanimously supported by the committee. In December 2012, the TRPA Governing Board overwhelmingly approved an updated Regional Plan that was the result of almost a decade of public input, planning, analysis, and negotiations.

The Updated Regional Plan

The 2012 Lake Tahoe Regional Plan reflects a set of targeted amendments that maintain a focus on environmental conservation but in a way that can adapt to current conditions and foster economic revitalization. In general, the new plan retains the strict environmental regulations from the 1987 Regional Plan, but adds incentives that were largely missing from the old plan to promote economic and environmental improvements.

The growth control system from the 1987 Regional Plan remains largely intact. The annual rate of growth in residential units, which was an extremely low 0.55 percent under the 1987 plan, is actually expected to decrease to an average of about 0.35 percent over the next 25 years as the region nears the growth caps put in place under the original plan.

The updated plan designates 11 of the most intensively developed areas in the region as town centers where mixed-use redevelopment and infill are prioritized. Under the new plan, local jurisdictions can increase height and density within town centers, but only if they comply with a series of requirements to implement complete streets1, protect community character and scenic views, improve transit, protect sensitive lands such as meadows and wetlands, and implement water quality improvements.

The updated plan creates a transfer of development rights (TDR) program to redirect new residential development from raw land in outlying or environmentally sensitive locations to mixed-use redevelopment and infill within the town centers. The TDR program also awards bonus commercial, tourist accommodation, or residential development rights when existing development in environmentally sensitive areas is torn down and transferred to town centers. To stimulate redevelopment, land coverage limits were increased for redevelopment projects in town centers so that existing non-conforming developments could more easily redevelop and construct required stormwater treatment systems.

Wetlands: Over 75 percent of the marshes and 50 percent of the meadows in the Lake Tahoe region were developed prior to the creation of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. Photo provided by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

Wetlands: Over 75 percent of the marshes and 50 percent of the meadows in the Lake Tahoe region were developed prior to the creation of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. Photo provided by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

These changes are expected to result in a more compact land use pattern that allows very little growth while promoting economic activity and redevelopment within town centers. It’s estimated that the resulting land use pattern will exceed California’s targets for greenhouse gas reduction, reduce regional per capita vehicle miles travelled (VMT) by 3 percent, and reduce vehicle trips within town centers by an additional 4 percent as a result of mixed-use development with increased pedestrian, bicycle, and transit options. The TDR program is projected to protect about a quarter of the remaining privately owned outlying or sensitive parcels as open space. Redevelopment within town centers is expected to reduce stormwater and pollutant runoff as old non-conforming developments are replaced by newer structures with required water quality improvements.

A central component of the 2012 Regional Plan is a framework for local jurisdictions and TRPA to cooperatively develop Area Plans for specific geographic areas. Under the 1987 Regional Plan, each project had to comply with a complicated set of regional and local ordinances that at times were inconsistent.

The Area Plans will be adopted by local jurisdictions and TRPA. Each Area Plan must conform with the Regional Plan to ensure its consistency with regional environmental goals, but it can be individually tailored to meet each local community’s unique requirements and needs. With a conforming Area Plan in place, TRPA will delegate the majority of development review activities to the local jurisdictions. This is expected to significantly streamline the permitting process by setting up one-stop-shop permitting for most projects. TRPA would still review and directly permit projects that have a greater chance of impacting the environment such as large scale projects (e.g., new commercial developments over 40,000 square feet) or projects on the shore of Lake Tahoe.

The plan takes a “belt and suspenders” approach to ensure that delegated approvals are consistent with the regional plan. TRPA will annually audit approximately 5 percent of each jurisdiction’s project approvals, and may revoke delegation authority if projects are not consistent with the regional plan. In addition, any delegated approval can be appealed to TRPA. Thus, the vast majority of development applications can move through a streamlined process that can facilitate greater economic activity, but TRPA will still review potentially impactful or controversial projects.

The future of Lake Tahoe

Only a few years ago, it appeared that entrenched development and environmental interests couldn’t find a compromise solution on a Regional Plan that would balance the environment and the economy. Adoption of the Regional Plan was only possible by first establishing a set of mutually agreed upon priorities, and second, developing a plan through a transparent process that allowed for face-to-face discussions between community members, interest groups, and planning staffs all the way to the highest levels of state governments.

This approach garnered an unprecedented level of support for a more nuanced plan that balances environmental conservation with economic vitality, with over 75 percent of the comments received on the final plan urging its immediate approval. The list of organizations supporting the plan covered a broad spectrum from the Chamber of Commerce to the League to Save Lake Tahoe, the area’s most prominent environmental group. In contrast to the partisan gridlock that seems to dominate much of the country, the Regional Plan was strongly supported by a bipartisan group of politicians including the governors and the U.S. senators of both Nevada and California.

Support for the plan, however, was not unanimous. Some property rights advocates called for more local control of planning, and the local chapter of the Sierra Club called for a more centralized regulatory approach. On Feb. 11, 2013, the Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore filed a lawsuit to overturn the Regional Plan, opposing greater project review authority for local jurisdictions and contending that the plan amendments could not guarantee that environmental goals would be met.

On June 17, 2013, a federal judge dismissed a number of claims made by plaintiffs Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore challenging the Lake Tahoe Regional Plan Update and ordered them to pay upfront TRPA’s costs associated with assembling the administrative record for the pending litigation. In his order, Judge John A. Mendez upheld TRPA’s rules requiring plaintiffs, not taxpayers, to fund the litigation preparation cost of collecting years of documentation of the Regional Plan Update. Judge Mendez also dismissed plaintiff’s claims that the Regional Plan Update violated California state law and authorized an improper delegation of permitting to local jurisdictions.

“The judge’s order is a positive step in getting Lake Tahoe’s environment, communities and economy back on track,” TRPA Executive Director Joanne S. Marchetta said. “We know that Area Plans can integrate local environmental protections with the high standards of the Regional Plan. A complex permit process can create barriers to environmentally-beneficial projects and Area Plans have many safeguards built in.”


Adam Lewandowski is a Principal Planner with the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency in Stateline, Nevada. He is currently working on implementing the updated Lake Tahoe Regional Plan.


Endnotes

  1. Complete streets are designed and maintained to provide safe access for all users, including bicyclists, pedestrians, transit riders, and motorists.

Published in July/August 2013

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