Sierra Club, Tahoe governing agency argue lawsuit in federal court
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Attorneys for the Tahoe Area Sierra Club, Friends of the West Shore and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency appeared in front of a three-judge panel at the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Tuesday, April 12, for oral arguments in an ongoing dispute regarding the TRPA’s 2012 Regional Plan Update.
The Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore are arguing that the environmental review for TRPA’s regional plan was not comprehensive enough to move forward with the policy. Both groups maintain the review was too broad and did not address individual watersheds.
TRPA, however, maintains that additional environmental assessments that the plaintiffs referred to will be made in local area plans.
The agency’s plan was a guideline for the Lake Tahoe Basin as a whole, and was to be incorporated into individual area plans around the lake.
“We are confident the court will find our regional plan is based on sound science, planning and analysis,” TRPA Executive Director Joanne Marchetta said in a press release. “It represents the best path forward for TRPA to accomplish its mandate to restore Lake Tahoe’s environment and make communities more sustainable.”
During proceedings, Sierra Club attorney Trent Orr challenged Marchetta’s notion.
“We do not disagree that the regional plan, which was first formulated in 1987, needs to be updated. We think that they didn’t update it based on adequate information,” Orr told the judges. “We’re very fearful of what the new plan would do.”
In response to TRPA’s suggestion that further study would happen during the adoption of local area plans, Orr added, “The problem is that the information isn’t coming later.”
TRPA counsel Whit Manley acknowledged the need for more study, also stating that it would come.
“We’ve said localized review must occur,” he explained to the panel. “It simply hasn’t happened yet.”
He continued to suggest that the appropriate time to challenge policy would be during the adoption of individual area plans for cities and districts around the basin.
In an interview with the Tahoe Daily Tribune, local Sierra Club Conservation chair Laurel Ames questioned the intentions of TRPA, alleging the 2012 update is more focused on benefiting the economy rather than the environment.
“They revised it. They turned it upside down,” she said. “We’re very, very frustrated.”
She called for more independent scientific research into environmental impact, specifically as it pertains to near-shore issues, which she suggested has not happened.
Reached for comment, TRPA attorney John Marshall said, “I disagree strongly that additional environmental study did not happen.”
Further elaborating on TRPA’s regional plan, he added, “The plan was designed to improve environmental conditions by redeveloping aging infrastructure in urban centers. All the evidence shows that that will result in positive environmental gains.”
The Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore first filed their lawsuit against the Regional Plan Update shortly after the TRPA Governing Board adopted it in December 2012.
Prior to the Ninth Circuit Court appeal, U.S. District Court Judge John Mendez found the lawsuit to have no merit and dismissed it entirely in April 2014. The group then appealed the ruling to the higher court.
A Ninth Circuit Court representative said there is no timeline for a decision in the case. A ruling could affirm the lower court or agree with plaintiff claims and require revisions to the plan.
The TRPA has been able to proceed with the its current plan while litigation is ongoing. Several communities around the lake have adopted area plans to implement regional plan goals at the local level, including the City of South Lake Tahoe and Douglas County.
“We are optimistic the court will affirm TRPA and its many partners in the region are on the right track to restore and conserve the Jewel of the Sierra and its natural treasures for all future generations to enjoy,” Marchetta said.