Bound by boundaries: Is it time to redraw county lines?
February 5, 2003
Everyday life in the Truckee-North Lake Tahoe region goes against the grain of state-manufactured boundaries set more than 150 years ago.
Living in Truckee, residents often commute to work, drive to Reno to go shopping and can cross two county lines just to go skiing.
But the old lines still exist, and government and the paper trail follow those boundaries, leaving many wondering why there isn’t a single county that encompasses the area in which Truckee and North Lake Tahoe residents live their lives.
A forthcoming publication from the Sierra Business Council, “Investing for Prosperity,” recognizes these boundaries as remnants of California’s past: “We routinely traverse these old boundaries for trade, recreation and commuting. Because of highways and new technologies, our sense of place and our range of coverage are much broader.”
“They all have an east-west orientation. It made total sense because that’s the way the flumes ran,” said SBC President Jim Sayer. “But now we don’t have the same resource connection in our economy.”
Sayer isn’t sure if forming a new county would actually be the answer, but he does see a trend in rural regionalism. Rural town and counties are banding together with other rural areas to pool their resources, save money and make sure their needs are not overlooked.
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These efforts also recognize that problems do not stop at the county line.
Local efforts toward this sort of regional cooperation and resource pooling can be seen with Placer and Nevada county air quality programs and a more recent effort to adjust Placer County’s boundary to incorporate portions of neighborhoods into Truckee proper.
Recognition of the regional nature of land use planning hit Truckee residents’ radar when the Martis Valley Community Plan update began, sending Truckee residents to Placer County planning commission meeting to voice their concerns about regional impacts.
“Investing for Prosperity” goes further: “What underlies all of these efforts is the understanding that… very few towns or counties are islands unto themselves. And without making connections among jurisdictions, rural areas forego opportunities to build economies, protect natural resources, provide a higher level of services and grow social capital.”
While some may not believe that drawing new boundaries is the best solution, for rural counties that feel like the state’s stepchild, creating new boundaries for counties or cities can also be seen as a progression away from those man-made lines and a new level of local control.
Since the California State Legislature passed new laws regarding county formation, only eight attempts made it to the ballot. Northern Californians talk about breaking away from the south; some Siskiyou County residents still imagine breaking off from California and forming their own state of Jefferson; and north Santa Barbara County residents, after a failed attempt in 1978, are still trying to breakaway from the south.
Perhaps because of the political nature of many of the debates, or perhaps because of the economic feasibility of breaking away and running state-mandated programs and offices, none of them have passed.
Only El Dorado County has come close to forming a joint city-county of South Lake Tahoe.
El Dorado County Measure C
The boundaries of the imagined city-county of South Lake Tahoe were defined in 1984 by El Dorado County’s Measure C summary as the “portion of El Dorado County lying easterly of peak ridge running through Echo Summit which forms the South Lake Tahoe Basin.”
The fiscal impact report – written by a five-member County Formation Review Commission – concluded that there would not be a negative fiscal impact on the remaining portion of El Dorado County. The county would lose approximately $90,000 annually, which was .6 percent of the county’s budget.
The report also stated that the city-county of South Lake Tahoe would be economically viable, starting with an annual budget of almost $30 million.
Former El Dorado County Supervisor Jack Sweeney said he believes the measure was defeated by basin residents.
“I think what people were afraid of was having more government,” Sweeney said. With the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, El Dorado County and the city of South Lake Tahoe already holding jurisdiction over basin residents, Sweeney believes some thought the new city-county would only make government more regulatory.
The same year Measure C was on the ballot, Sweeney ran for the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors to represent the Placerville area, and won.
“I supported that and frankly the west slope supported it. It failed in the basin,” Sweeney said from his home in Diamond Springs.
Almost 20 years after the measure was defeated – Measure C received 46 percent of the vote – Sweeney believes a South Lake Tahoe County made up of parts of El Dorado and Placer counties is still viable.
But he wouldn’t suggest taking in portions of Nevada County, primarily because of the imagined boundary dividing basin residents and non-basin residents.
“I think some of those folks would be upset about dealing with South Lake Tahoe,” he said.
Others in Truckee local government have echoed similar feelings.
“If the county seat was in South Lake Tahoe – as far away as Nevada City – there may still be some we-they attitude that exists,” Truckee Town Manager Steve Wright said. “There’s the possibility that the same kind of issues would exist,”
Truckee Mayor Ted Owens agreed, arguing that Truckee would find itself at the end of a 4-1 vote at the county level, a frustration that led to the town’s incorporation 10 years ago.
“A smaller county, I think, is understandable. Truckee has more in common philosophically with Sierra County,” he said. “We have more in common with them up north.”
Wherever people imagine boundaries to be, talk of a new county, which has been going on for years, and regional planning, seem to be erasing those lines.