TRPA working to adjust Lake Tahoe’s development rights system |

TRPA working to adjust Lake Tahoe’s development rights system

Claire Cudahy

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Visit to learn more about TRPA’s Development Rights Strategic Initiative.

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Commercial Floor Area, Tourist Accommodations Units, Residential Development Rights, land coverage — one thing is for sure, development in the Lake Tahoe Basin is complicated.

For that reason, and the lack of environmentally beneficial redevelopment in the last few decades, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency is taking a hard look at its development rights system.

The Development Rights Strategic Initiative kicked off this past February, and is currently two working group meetings into its mission of reexamining the commodities system that controls development in the Lake Tahoe Basin.

“This is looking at the system we’ve had in place since 1987 in the Regional Plan,” said TRPA senior planner Jennifer Cannon.

At present, in addition to city or county zoning and permitting requirements, the TRPA requires different combinations of commodities — like Tourist Accommodation Units (TAUs)— and land coverage in order for any development or redevelopment to take place.

“That was one of the main points I got from the stakeholder assessment — it’s really complicated. It’s hard to describe it in simple terms,” said Cannon, referencing input from 55 stakeholders from across the Basin interviewed in order to isolate issues with the system.

A lack of redevelopment of blighted motels and other crumbling infrastructure was another driving force behind the TRPA’s decision to reevaluate the current system.

“In a nutshell, we are not seeing a lot of redevelopment of aging infrastructure, and the reason why that’s a problem is because when you have redevelopment of those different commercial buildings and complexes like strip malls built in the 1960s, you will see better storm water infrastructure,” Cannon said. “You’ll see less coverage. They’ll have to meet the new standards for design, so you’ll see design improvements. Frankly, we haven’t had a lot of that over the last decade or two — really since 1987.”


Improvements to stormwater management is crucial in keeping fine sediment out of the lake — a major contributor to water clarity issues.

“We are looking at alternatives to that development rights system. And we’re looking at best practices, and looking at what other regions are doing, like how are they able to overcome some of the same struggles that we have here in Tahoe,” explained Cannon.

Boulder, Colo., is one of the areas that TRPA is looking at as an example.

At the last working group meeting on Oct. 25, criteria and goals were selected in order to evaluate alternatives to the current commodities system.

Environmental benefit, concentrated growth in town centers, and a more predictable and streamlined system were some of the objectives identified by the group.

The working group is made up of TRPA governing board members and staff, and representatives from the California Tahoe Conservancy, Nevada Land Bank and State of California Attorney General. The public is also welcome at these meetings.

“We do send out notices for these working group meetings, and we invite the public to come. I also send out email blasts just telling about new information that’s up and available on the initiative,” said Cannon.

To sign up for these email blasts, visit, click “About TRPA,” “How We Operate,” then “Strategic Plans and Initiatives.” Lastly, find “Development Rights Strategic Initiatives” and scroll to the bottom for instructions.

The next working group meeting will be held in February — a specific date has not yet been set.


The project is now in phase two, starting with research of best practices and progressing to the development of alternatives to the current system.

“We have about a little less than a year to develop final recommendations for alternatives, and then a year for environmental documentation and the development of actual code amendments,” explained Cannon. “So there’s probably two years left or so. It’s pretty ambitious to get an environmental document for this type of change done in one year.”

South Lake Tahoe city councilmember Tom Davis is encouraged by the TRPA’s examination of the development rights system because as he sees it, it’s the major impediment to creation of affordable housing in the Basin.

“First of all, only at Lake Tahoe do we create something out of nothing,” said Davis in reference to the creation of invisible commodities like TAUs.

“We need more affordable housing in Tahoe, and to get there TRPA is going to have to change rules and land use. I think they get that now.”

Davis said he would like to get rid of the commodities system, and have “projects stand on their own merit.”

“They shouldn’t have to buy these commodities. It just runs the cost of the project up.”

Prices for these commodities vary around the lake, and are not regulated by TRPA.

One Realtor on the South Shore is selling Residential Development Units (including the development right and allocation needed to build a home) for $25,000 to $35,000 each.

“It’s a challenging problem, and it hasn’t been fixed over the last three decades for a reason,” noted Cannon, who confirmed the cost of commodities is something TRPA is looking into. “It’s hard to find what will work so we are trying to do this as intelligently as possible.”

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