Lake Tahoe local and regional planning policies lead to the design of a platinum rated restoration project for sustainability

by Suzanne Wilkins, AICP, ENV SP, Truckee, California

The Snow Creek Stream Environment Zone (SEZ) Restoration Project is a good example of sustainable infrastructure planning and design which results in benefits to the environment, economy and community. In 2013 the Placer County Department of Public Works was awarded a platinum rating, the highest level of achievement, from the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure’s (ISI) Envision™ Sustainability Rating System. This was the first project to receive a platinum rating and the second project to complete the Envision application process since it was introduced in 2012. The project attained the highest level of achievement not only because of the sustainability components in the design but also because substantial regional and local public planning processes and policies were implemented over a 15-year period ultimately leading to project implementation.

Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure and Envision

ISI is a not for profit organization founded by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) and the American Public Works Association (APWA) in order to develop and implement Envision. The founding organizations recognized the need for a civil infrastructure rating system and decided to collaborate to create one comprehensive system. ISI collaborated with the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure at Harvard University Graduate School of Design to develop the Envision infrastructure sustainability rating system. 

Envision is similar to the U.S. Green Building Council Leadership Energy and Environmental Design (LEED™) rating system for buildings, yet is specifically designed for civil infrastructure projects. While there are other rating systems for specific types of infrastructure, the Envision system can be used for all types of infrastructure and provides a more comprehensive rating system which incorporates 60 credits over five categories. The five categories are: Quality of Life, Leadership, Resource Allocation, Natural World and Climate and Risk (ISI 2012).


BEFORE AND AFTER

Former concrete plant project area before Snow Creek SEZ Restoration Project in 2011 and after construction of restoration and bicycle trail improvements this spring. Photos provided by Suzanne Wilkins.


Snow Creek SEZ Restoration Project

AFTER: Restored stream channel for natural stormwater conveyance. Photo by Suzanne Wilkins.

The project is located within a moderately dense mixed use (industrial, commercial, residential, recreation, public service) community on the north shore of Lake Tahoe in Tahoe Vista, California. The project area is over 6 acres and fronts on a busy road serving all the uses surrounding the site on three sides and is adjacent to a wetland meadow and creek on the other side. CDM Smith worked with Placer County to plan and design the project.

The project restores an EPA Brownfield site that was used as a concrete plant since the 1950s. When the property changed from its former industrial use, the change brought immediate reductions in impacts from traffic, noise and visual disturbances and increased public open space, recreation and non-motorized transportation options. The restoration of the site included removal of approximately 8,000 cubic yards of fill and the creation of a new natural stormwater channel, wetland and upland habitat. Stormwater entering the site is pretreated and then discharged to the restored channel and wetlands for additional treatment and conveyance to Snow Creek and ultimately Lake Tahoe. A paved bicycle trail was constructed which connects to an existing paved trail leading to other multi-modal sites and recreation areas on one end, and existing mountain biking trails on the other end. A new pedestrian walkway along busy National Avenue was also constructed, providing a needed safety improvement for local residents.

The project design included the salvaging and reuse of many existing onsite materials. Large quantities of rock, native top soil, mulch and native plant materials were used in the construction and stabilization of the new channel and adjacent areas. Gravel and sand materials from the previous site operations were also used as base material for the paved portions of the trail. A new boardwalk and recycled railroad flatcar bridge are used to span the sensitive areas and new channel. The design considers the potential impacts from climate change such as periodic flooding or sustained drought to provide for infrastructure resilience by elevating the trail above stormwater channels and Snow Creek and using native plants that can tolerate drought.

Additionally, the project is providing for public education and stewardship opportunities about restoration, low impact development (LID) storm water strategies, and the value of wetlands and meadows for preserving water quality. Placer County is working with Sierra Watershed Education Partnerships (SWEP) a local non-profit to develop the educational and stewardship component. SWEP is working with a local fifth grade class where students are helping to revegetate the site and monitor the growth of replanted willows throughout the school year. The students are also creating artwork for interpretive sign panels to be displayed along the new trail. SWEP is organizing an opening day event to introduce the completed project to the local community.

Project Conception and Planning

The initial vision of the project began in the 1990s with development of the Tahoe Vista Community Plan (Placer County 1996). At that time, sustainability was not a common term. However, the Community Plan, which describes the need to restore over one acre of SEZ next to the meadow and Snow Creek for environmental benefit, proved to be instrumental for this project to ultimately attain an Envision Platinum Award. At the time of development of the Community Plan, the concrete plant was still operating. Shortly after the Community Plan was completed, the first Lake Tahoe Summit, attended by President Clinton in 1997, launched creation and implementation of the Lake Tahoe Environmental Improvement Program (EIP). Since the start of the EIP over $1.69 billion has been invested into over 400 projects in the Lake Tahoe basin to protect water quality, watershed and habitat; improve air quality, transportation, recreation and scenic resources; and provide for forest management and applied science. The Snow Creek SEZ Restoration project became a subject of regional planning with the project’s inclusion on the EIP Master List of Projects (TRPA, 2001).

Eventually, in 2003, the owner of the concrete plant decided to move the production operation to a more suitable site within the region keeping the site as a storage yard. Later removal of underground and aboveground storage tanks led to the discovery of soil contamination and the environmental assessment process began to determine its extent and develop a plan for cleanup. A few years later, Placer County began to work with the property owner to acquire the site and secured State of California funding to purchase the property, and then an EPA Brownfields Grant and California Resources Agency funding to assist with planning, design, and construction. Placer County finalized the property purchase in 2008 after the site was close to completing soil remediation. At this point, Placer County was ready to begin development of the project.

Additional regional and local planning documents and policies also contributed to the high sustainability rating of the project and introduced the concept for a bicycle trail connection to be added to the project. The North Lake Tahoe Resort Association’s North Lake Tahoe Tourism and Community Investment Master Plan (2004) describes the benefits from building trails to the local economy; and the 2010 Lake Tahoe Region Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan (TRPA 2010) describes the project’s multi-use trail connection link for transportation community benefit. Funding for way finding signage along the new trail was provided by the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association.

At the project level, a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) comprised of local, state, and federal agencies and organizations was developed and involved with the site improvement planning and design. The TAC provided reviews of the plans and studies through a well-defined process consisting of several steps including: an Existing Conditions Analysis, Formulation and Evaluation of Alternatives Report, Recommended Alternative Project Report, and Final Design Report. TAC meetings were held during the process to provide comments at each step. Placer County also conducted several public meetings through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process and met with neighboring property owners to address their concerns.

The regional and local planning policies along with the project planning process provided a pathway toward acquisition of the property by a public agency, restoration of the site and construction of new community amenities such as trails and public access to natural open space.


AFTER: Elevated recycled rail car trail bridge over new SEZ channel and interpretive signage. Photos by Suzanne Wilkins.


Envision as a Tool for Planning and Design

CDM Smith (Truckee, CA), the project design and planning consulting firm hired by Placer County Department of Public Works, incorporated use of the Envision toolkit to refine various measures already being incorporated into the project design and planning process and prepare an Envision rating application. The project team found the Envision tools and resources to be useful for consideration and evaluation of sustainability design components of the project. The Envision Self-Assessment Checklist offers a quick review checklist for the project’s sustainability and gives the project team an idea of what things could be modified or added to the project to improve sustainability. The team may choose to focus on specific improvements to meet stated project goals and forgo others measures that may not be applicable or provide much benefit relative to costs.

The Envision Guidance Manual explains the rating system in detail and the background for development of the system. It also provides a discussion of sustainability and the built environment, the importance of infrastructure, quality of life and the human development index, setting a course for sustainability and the role of engineering to achieve sustainable infrastructure. But the main feature of the Guidance Manual is to provide a framework with guidance for the various levels of achievement that may be attained for each of the 60 credits in the five Envision categories.

Questions are asked under each category and further explored with more specific questions for each credit in the five categories.  The intent of each credit is explained in detail with examples describing ways to reach the various levels of achievement. A point amount is accredited to each level of achievement. The specific documentation requirements needed to support a credit rating are also described under each credit.

The third tool, the Envision workbook, is an online form where the applicant can enter the answers to each credit question. This is a database which keeps track of, and tabulates the score based on the selected credit rating. The applicant may also upload documentation supporting the rating. This same form is used to input the verification and authentication of credits and for the applicant responses to the verifier and authenticator. Once the workbook is completed, a table is generated showing how the project scored in each of the five categories and the overall project rating. The Snow Creek SEZ Restoration project rating table is provided above for reference.

The tool provides a solid framework for comprehensive sustainability analysis of projects and guidance for achieving either an Improved, Enhanced, Superior, Conserving or Restorative rating for each of the 60 credits. Restorative is the highest rating achievable for a credit. Innovation points are also available to increase a project’s rating encouraging the use of innovative project concepts to increase sustainability. Use of the Envision toolkit spawns ideas among project team members of how to increase a project’s sustainability components and contribute to local and regional sustainability goals. The sustainable approach to project planning and design may help to expand funding opportunities in the future as more state and federal policies are developed to encourage projects which benefit the community, economy and environment.


Acknowledgements:

CDM Smith employees, Suzanne Wilkins (Project Planner) and Stefan Schuster (Project Manager) are both Envision Sustainability Professionals (ENV SP) who worked on the project. Tom Pedersen, Senior Vice President and Director of Sustainability at CDM Smith, is also an ENV SP and was the Lead Practitioner for the project. Andy Sauer, CDM Smith Associate and an Envision Verifier, provided input related to preparation of the Envision application. 


Suzanne Wilkins, AICP and ENV SP, has worked as a planner for over 20 years. Most of her work has been with water quality improvement and public recreation projects in northern California and Nevada.

References:

  • Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI). Envision 2.0, A Rating System for Sustainable Infrastructure. Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure and the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure at Harvard Graduate School. 2012.
  • North Lake Tahoe Resort Association. 2004. North Lake Tahoe Tourism and Community Investment Master Plan. September 2004.
  • Placer County, North Tahoe Area General Plan and Tahoe Vista Community Plan, April 1996. 
  • Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA), 2001. Environmental Improvement Program, Volume 2 Master List of Threshold Needs. April 25, 2001. Accessed at: http://trpa.org/documents/docdwnlds/EIP/volume2.pdf.
  • Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. 2010. Lake Tahoe Region Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan.

Published in the July/August 2014 Issue

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