More than a hundred years ago, conservationists voiced concern about the impacts of tourism, ranching, and logging on the Lake Tahoe environment. Their idea to make Lake Tahoe a national forest or national park didn't gain wide support in Washington D.C., primarily because much of the land in the Basin was already privately owned and had been developed or logged. Even then, many thought it was too late to preserve Lake Tahoe.
But conservationists continued lobbying for environmental protection as logging and ranching waned, ski resorts expanded, and Stateline casinos went high-rise. Lake Tahoe had become a national treasure, known throughout the world for its pristine environment and crystal clear waters. The debate came to a climax in the late 1960s after two decades of rapid growth. Statistics predicted a future population of 800,000 people—a population that would have rivaled that of San Francisco. Area planners were calling for more growth and a freeway encircling the lake. The impacts to the lake’s famed clarity were phenomenal, yet unregulated growth continued.
That is why governors and lawmakers in California and Nevada approved a bi-state compact that created a regional planning agency to oversee development at Lake Tahoe. The Agency’s jurisdiction was unique in that it is watershed-based and spans territory in two states. Because of its bi-state role, the agreement was sent to the United States Congress in 1969, and was ratified, creating the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.
The Compact, as revised in 1980, gave TRPA authority to adopt environmental quality standards, called thresholds, and to enforce ordinances designed to achieve the thresholds. The Agency is lead by a governing board made up of local, elected officials and appointees from the two states. One non-voting presidential appointee sits on the board as well.
The Governing Board adopted a long-range regional plan in April 1984. The same day, two parties filed suit in federal court claiming they were not convinced the plan would adequately protect the Lake Tahoe environment. The judge in the case effectively ordered a moratorium on new building at Lake Tahoe. The Executive Director of TRPA then called together a consensus group to hammer out another regional plan. After three years of negotiations, the lawsuit was settled and the TRPA Governing Board adopted the 1987 Regional Plan in effect today. This plan is set to expire every 20 years, at which time the agency gets a chance to rewrite its plan and regulations to better protect the environment while enhancing the communities of the Tahoe Basin. The TRPA is embarking on an unprecedented mission to gather public input, called Pathway 2007, as it prepares to write its next 20-year regional plan in 2007
The TRPA has adopted a three-pronged strategy to restore the environment of Lake Tahoe:
The regulatory program has been in place for more than 35 years and is re-evaluated every 5 years. While regulation is one of the pillars of the TRPA’s plan, the agency also emphasizes the capital investment and scientific research components of its strategy which are embodied in the Environmental Improvement Program, or EIP
TRPA is primarily an environmental agency, but recognizes the interdependency of environmental, economic and social well being in the Tahoe Region. Environmental groups, property rights advocates, business interests and numerous government agencies agree that tourism and successful, locally-owned businesses are the key to economic vitality at Lake Tahoe and are dependent upon the attractiveness of the region’s environment. The TRPA Regional Plan allows for a measured rate of residential, commercial and recreational growth, the impacts of which are controlled through mitigation measures.
Property rights groups representing developers and real estate interests have repeatedly sued TRPA to weaken or eliminate environmental restrictions in the Tahoe Region. Real estate representatives and property rights groups have charged that the agency is too powerful and goes far beyond environmental protection, asserting that restrictions on development of private property violate the Takings clause in the U.S. constitution.
There is also concern over the scientific evidence TRPA uses to form its regulations. For example, for more than twenty years, construction of new piers in “prime fish habitat” areas was prohibited, but studies were later released that showed some manmade structures in “feeding and escape cover” habitat areas could actually benefit fish populations.
Criticism of TRPA often falls under the category of economics. Some business owners and homeowners express concerns that they want more freedom to build or expand in order to realize the maximum value from their properties. TRPA says it works diligently to find innovative ways to allow property owners to develop their property in environmentally sensitive ways and has created programs that balance environmental impacts through mitigation. Mitigation measures usually come in the form of fees which are used to fund much-needed environmental improvement and restoration projects. Some feel that the fees amount to undue taxation, such as a per day fee for visitors renting a passenger vehicle. As of 2002 this fee was $4.75 per day the proceeds of which are used to fund public transportation.
In 2005, in an effort to bring all buoys on the lake into compliance with current regulations, TRPA initially proposed a buoy permitting fee of $5,000.00 USD for the first buoy and $7,500.00 USD for a second buoy. Many residents protested thinking that the TRPA did not have the power to charge taxes. Due to public opposition and guidance from the TRPA Governing Board, a new proposal was made in 2006 reducing the permitting fee to $500 USD for the first buoy and $1,500 USD for the second. If the fee is approved, the agency claims it would be used to offset the impacts to water quality and to fund a watercraft and illegal buoy enforcement program. The proposal, after two years of discussion, was supposed to be finalized in February 2007. But the League to Save Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Club, which want the pier moratorium to continue, continued to protest the changes. Furthermore, some California government agencies continue to question the environmental impacts of more piers.
Many individuals and public interest groups feel that TRPA does not go far enough in strictly controlling development. They claim that, since Lake Tahoe belongs to everyone, property owners must take responsibility for the impacts of their development. Further, supporters of the agency’s policies point out that comprehensive management strategies in communities across the nation are often funded by assessing fees on the associated properties and participants who benefit the most from such impacts.
Other issues the agency is criticized for are fine amounts and local representation at the agency. TRPA fine amounts are generally around $5,000.00 USD for violations like unpermitted tree-cutting. While some critics say such fines aren’t large enough since a wealthy lakefront owner may happily pay that much to improve their view, other critics argue that it is further evidence of TRPA’s over-reaching expansion. Since TRPA is a bi-state entity with quasi-federal powers, state & local elected officials have little recourse in opposing the agency’s strategies. Although half of the TRPA’s 15-member Governing Boardis made up of locally elected officials, there is public sentiment that they have only the courts to turn to for balance. If anyone contests the agency’s decisions, they feel they are painted as against the environment. Furthermore, critics of the agency have alleged that TRPA staff represent themselves as "locals", which is actually true of most of the board and the staff, though a small percentage of staff members live outside the Tahoe Basin, in nearby areas such as Carson City. Since staff are the individuals with whom most of the negotiations are engaged, and who propose nearly all agenda items the Governing Board hears, there is local sentiment that the agency serves too few and is not working for the benefit of local residents and businesses. A movement led by local property rights groups and real estate developers to have all Governing Board members elected by local residents has been pushed for several years, but has thus far been resisted by Government officials and environmental groups, due to concern that environmental protection of the lake will be compromised in favor of development.
An example of the controversy the Agency faces is development in the shorezone. Lake Tahoe’s shorezone is where the lake meets the land. Because of its relationship to the quality of scenery, recreation, and lake clarity, the shorezone is one of the most sensitive areas in the region. The Environmental Protection Agency has designated Lake Tahoe as Outstanding National Resource Waters under the Clean Water Act. Having this special designation calls for a non-degradation standard and a high level of protection. There are only three bodies of water on the West Coast with this designation: Mono Lake in California, and Crater Lake in Oregon are the other two.
The shorezone of Lake Tahoe has a long and challenging history. Regulations affecting the construction of piers, buoys and other shorezone-related issues have been researched and debated extensively since the 1980s. The Tahoe Lakefront Homeowners Association and others call for fewer restrictions on development, claiming that every lakefront property owner should be allowed to build a pier. Other groups, such as the League to Save Lake Tahoe and The Sierra Club, argue that allowing hundreds of new piers will harm fish habitat and scenic quality, and will further block the public from access to beaches and will inhibit kayaking along the shore.
For more than 25 years, the TRPA has not allowed new structures such as piers in areas considered “prime fish habitat.” These areas are still considered limited and fragile. However, aforementioned scientific studies were conducted over a period of 15 years that showed protective measures could be taken to reduce the impacts of additional piers on the lake and that some underwater structures actually benefited fish populations in “feed and escape cover” habitat areas. In 2005 and 2006, after 20 years of debate, the agency released an environmental document with alternatives that would allow some new development in the shorezone, but says it balanced new development with programs that increased public beach access, protected sensitive areas, and set high standards for development.
According to the agency, the shorezone example shows how TRPA attempts to serve all members of the public fairly by using the best available science and planning practices to protect Lake Tahoe and create a balance between the manmade and natural environments. The Agency says it understands that on some controversial issues, consensus isn’t possible. But after robust collaboration between TRPA and the public, common ground can emerge to move the process forward. Even so, the shorezone changes remain in limbo.
In June 2007, the Angora wildfire burned 3,100 acres and destroyed 254 residences and many other structures in South Lake Tahoe. Developers’ rights groups and local real estate lobbyists immediately charged that the structures burned because of TRPA’s strict environmental regulations, which allegedly prohibit property owners from clearing defensible space around their homes. TRPA countered that defensible space has always been a significant agency concern, and has always been encouraged by the agency, citing published TRPA regulations, public documents, and previous public hearings.
Prompted by local newspaper articles quoting allegations of TRPA staff forcing homeowners to pile dry pine needles and other flammable materials around their homes, and even up against the structures, creating dangerous fire hazards, state and local politicians reacted swiftly by calling for investigations into TRPA policies and staff misconduct. In July 2007, California and Nevada governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Gibbons signed a bi-state "Blue Ribbon Fire Commission" agreement, to investigate fire issues in the Lake Tahoe Basin, including TRPA regulations that purportedly caused problems that lead to the loss of hundreds of structures.
Contrary to the allegations of staff misconduct and detrimental agency policies, the U.S. Forest Service fire investigations in the Angora fire Investigations confirmed that most of the structures caught fire from “firebrands” -- pieces of burning wood -- carried in the smoke column either from neighboring structures or from nearby burning vegetation. The investigations found that some homes had highly flammable wooden shake roofs and inadequate fire clearance around the structures. In many cases, winter fire wood and kindling supplies were piled too close to homes. The study did state that dead and dying vegetation along Angora Creek "likely contributed" to the fire's rapid spread. Native riparian vegetation in “stream environment zones” (such as Angora Creek) in the Tahoe Region are protected as sensitive resources, and removal of vegetation from these areas is typically restricted by TRPA to protect damage to soils, habitat, and water quality.
While fire investigators have concluded that several factors contributed to the disastrous fire, including unburned piles from previous forest thinning projects, lack of defensible space, stockpiling of flammable materials near structures, and thick ground covers, Investigators found that several structures actually burned the surrounding vegetation - not the reverse.
There is continuing disagreement regarding groundcover within 30 feet of structures. In certain cases, TRPA regulations require ground cover to provide protection from soil erosion on disturbed soil. Groundcover may often be lawn or other landscaping, however site-specific native vegetation, or naturally occurring forest litter such as a thin layer of pine needles or wood chips is generally the environmentally preferable alternative, and is more cost-effective and easier to maintain. While some groups argue that utilizing pine needles and wood chips as ground cover up to the 30 foot perimeter of a structure is a violation of California Public Resources Code 4291 requiring defensible space in California, a ½ to 1-inch covering of forest litter (duff layer) is not sufficient to carry a flame intense enough to burn structures from a distance of 30 feet away. Regardless, TRPA staff and local fire groups are investigating possible non-flammable or flame-retardant alternatives to provide both soil protection and fire prevention. In addition, TRPA staff and Board members are working with the local fire protection districts to simplify procedures for homeowners to implement defensible space requirements around their homes, and eliminate confusion and possible conflicts regarding TRPA erosion control requirements and defensible space requirements, and to ease restrictions on use of heavy machinery in sensitive areas near communities.
While investigations into the causes and affects on the Angora Fire show that allegations of staff misconduct were unfounded, and resource protection policies were not the cause of the disaster, anti-TRPA sentiment remains high among many residents and development interests, who feel the agency has infringed on constitutional private property rights, and impeded economic development in the Lake Tahoe Region. The Angora fire has reinvigorated a publicity campaign by Real Estate, Gaming, and Development interests to introduce legislation to reorganize the Agency and Governing Board to open up further expansion of development in the Tahoe Region
SEN. FEINSTEIN CALLS ON U.S. FOREST SERVICE, TAHOE REGIONAL PLANNING AGENCY TO RENEGOTIATE GUIDELINES ON PERMISSIBLE HAZARDOUS FUELS REDUCTION PROJECTS
Jul 17, 2007; The office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., issued the following news release: U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today...
The Supreme Court Rules Against Landowners In Temporary Regulatory Takings Case.(Tahoe-Sierra Preservation Council Inc. v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency)
Jun 21, 2002; INTRODUCTION The United States Supreme Court has rendered another important regulatory takings decision. In Tahoe-Sierra...
United States Supreme Court: 32-Month Development Moratorium Not Automatically a Taking.(Tahoe-Sierra Preservation Council Inc. v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency)(Brief Article)
Jul 17, 2002; In a departure from the trend in recent Supreme Court land use decisions that have favored property owners, the Supreme Court, in...
New developments in regulatory takings: the Supreme Court takes an interest in the fee simple estate. (Law and the Appraiser).(Tahoe-Sierra Preservation Council, Inc. v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency)
Jul 01, 2002; Appraisers are asked to serve as consultants or expert witnesses in litigation involving alleged regulatory takings of private...