The Truckee-Tahoe area is growing, but there is an end in sight.
Limited by geography, politics and even community values, new development in the region will reach an end ” known as buildout ” and will leave the Truckee-Tahoe mountain community a very different place. Predicting when that end will come is as much art as science, influenced by economic and population trends that reach well beyond the Truckee-Tahoe region.
But while growth may be the result larger economic trends, growth also drives economics localy. Development ” from planning to construction, is one of the region’s driving economic forces, which raises the question: What happens when it goes away?
Meanwhile, environmental concerns are the push to economics’ pull on growth, and buildout’s pressure on Truckee-Tahoe’s natural resources also influences local policy.
Local government agencies stand between the influences of environment and economy, left with policy decisions on promoting, limiting or prematurely stopping buildout in the area, and then dealing with the consequences of those decisions.
“Theoretically buildout is all anticipated development on the ground ” the maximum allowed under the town’s zoning density,” said Truckee Town Planner Duane Hall.
For Truckee, that means completion of upcoming major projects, from Planned Communities one and three, at Cold Stream and Joerger Ranch respectively, to the Hilltop and the Railyard developments in the downtown area, and many other smaller projects in between, Hall said.
Also included in buildout is construction on undeveloped lots in existing communities, like Tahoe Donner or Glenshire.
The maximum amount allowed by the Town of Truckee’s general plan for residential either being built, or left to be built, comes to 8,329 units ” or more units than already exist in Tahoe Donner and Glenshire combined.
Nonresidential (meaning commercial and industrial) construction has the potential to grow by as much as 1,766,489 square feet ” or about 44 additional Safeway markets-worth of floor space in Truckee.
For the Truckee-Tahoe area, buildout is limited by the mountains, both as physical barriers and in the priorities of the people who live in them.
“The limit on our space is a combination of our location and values,” said John McLaughlin, Truckee Community Development director. “Other communities would fill up Airport Flats, for example, but even though it’s flat and easy to build on, Truckee has decided it’s not appropriate.”
McLaughlin said other towns and cities, such as Santa Barbara, have tried to artificially limit buildout, but have been less than successful.
“Some communities tried to establish a carrying capacity through sewer or water. Those generally get challenged in court,” McLaughlin said.
Hall said the town doesn’t plan on such limitations, and doesn’t foresee any problems in the various local utilities keeping up with growth.
“All the special districts are working on the same population assumptions, so it’s the town’s understanding that the districts will keep up,” he said.
The town has quantified what it will take to reach buildout, both in number of residential units and in square footage for nonresidential development, and has looked at how long it will take to get there.
The town’s governing document, the 2025 General Plan, projects nonresidential buildout occurring by 2025, with residential buildout following about five years later.
“If we continue growing at the same rate of the last 10 years, we could hit those growth points,” Hall said.
“The 2025 date is pretty aggressive,” McLaughlin said. “It’s based on a pretty healthy economy, with constant growth similar to our recent past.”
During the most recent update to the town’s general plan, Hall said the public input assigned a higher priority to such things as open space, trails and affordable housing than to accommodating development.
“During the update we found people weren’t necessarily against buildout, but the question was raised: ‘Is the town neglecting other things and focusing on development,’ and the answer was ‘yes,'” Hall said.
By favoring other elements of the general plan over development, the town reduces time spent on development, effectively slowing it ” if only slightly.
“There are no restrictions on how much development can occur in a year. However, creating higher priorities makes sure development doesn’t take away focus from other things,” Hall said.
McLaughlin said the speed at which the town processes a proposed development through applications, permits and approvals also affects the rate of growth, but if things speed up too much, more regulation could come into effect.
“If we have sustained high activity, my guess is we would see political steps to slow it,” McLaughlin said.
Hall said one type of regulation used to slow growth is limiting the amount of development each year, such as the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s yearly allocations.
Beyond local government control, though, other factors can play into how quickly buildout is actually reached.
The limited construction season in the mountains also slows the growth rate. Hall said development may slow as land becomes less available as well. And then there are market forces.
“Buildout is based on the assumption of certain absorption rates. As we see in this little slowdown in [real estate] sales, there hasn’t been a slowdown in proposals for development. Development seems to be independent of the real estate market,” McLaughlin said. “But the market has done a good job of balancing things out historically.”
Mark Tanner, president of the board of directors of the Contractors Association of Truckee Tahoe said Tahoe Donner is a good example of how absorption can slow down.
“Tahoe Donner took 30 years to start approaching buildout; that was 6,000 units and there are still 800 left,” Tanner said.
Board member Frank Ross of the Contractors Association said population trends could also slow down buildout.
“Some are predicting that in 2012 the baby boomers will loose interest in skiing, so there is a good possibility the market could soften then,” Ross said.
But other factors could accelerate growth by eliminating lots to be filled by buildout, Tanner said.
“A lot of big parcels that could have had development potential are being bought up as open space,” Tanner said. “That can have a big effect on when we reach buildout.”
Because of all these factors, buildout won’t likely occur overnight, Ross said.
“Buildout isn’t going to happen hard and fast. So many things can change when that happens,” he said.
Although some perceive the Town of Truckee as “pro growth,” many town policies are designed solely to help the town keep up with market-driven demand for roads, services and other infrastructure, Hall said.
“The 2025 plan’s main focus is to insure infrastructure keeps up with growth. We don’t want what happened 10 years ago before the [Highway 267] Bypass to happen again,” Hall said.
The town, as well as Truckee’s special districts, makes sure “development pays as it goes” through a variety of impact fees, Hall said.
Those fees ” including fire-mitigation fees, school facility fees, and traffic-impact fees ” are charged to new developments for the infrastructure and services that need to grow with the town.
“One of the reasons for impact fees is it is important to ensure that development is paying for new facilities so service for current residents is not degraded,” Hall said. “We don’t want 10,000 new people with the same fire stations.”
In looking toward the future, the Town of Truckee must also consider growth beyond the town’s boundaries.
Like other municipalities, Truckee’s plan includes a “sphere of influence” beyond municipal boundaries, to potential areas of development that should logically be part of the town because they would most likely use its utilities and services.
The town’s sphere of influence includes parts of the Martis Valley (only within Nevada County), and Negro Canyon, north of Donner Lake.
“Buildout takes into consideration the Raley’s property, Waddle Ranch [both in the Martis Valley], and Negro Canyon, all of the areas in the sphere of influence,” Hall said. “But probably the only potential property for annexation (inclusion in future town boundaries) is the Raley’s property. The [Truckee Donner] Land Trust is looking at the others, so it looks like all of buildout is going to occur inside of Truckee.”
Executive Director Perry Norris of the Truckee Donner Land Trust said many of the trust’s key acquisitions are in Truckee’s sphere of influence.
“We are working on Waddle Ranch, and the Raley’s property is critical for creating contiguous public land in the Martis Valley,” Norris said.
Norris said that while he thinks the town is doing a good job in preserving open space, the real threat lies in unincorporated land around Truckee in both Nevada and Placer County.
McLaughlin said the town’s goal is to reach an agreement with the two counties to prevent un-checked development on the town’s peripheries.
“In Boulder, Colorado they set a limit to how big they could become and purchased the land around the town as a greenbelt. But just beyond that the county allowed less-regulated development around the greenbelt,” McLaughlin said. “Hopefully with Placer County and Nevada County, we can reach agreements and all come together to maintain this place.”
Aside from simply keeping up with growth, the general plan also focuses on maintaining ” or improving ” the area’s quality of life as growth continues. Hall said development restrictions for things like open space reflect the quality of life the town wants to preserve.
“Yes, we are going to reach buildout and have a larger population, but are we going to be a better community?” Hall said.
He said the environment is a big part of the community, along with other elements that improve the town for everyone.
“The general plan says to work on all the good stuff now rather than later ” affordable housing, trails, open space, streetscape, the river ” all are action items in the new plan,” Hall said.
Quality of life will continue to be a concern even after buildout, McLaughlin said, and as town government refocuses from development to redevelopment and other issues, public-benefit projects may come to the front.
“Public art and other issues may become more important ” will the town have a role in that? Those are all different facets as the community changes,” McLaughlin said.
As buildout approaches, rather than diminishing or disappearing, the town government and the construction industry will change to accommodate the next phase of development in Truckee: Redevelopment.
The town government already has a redevelopment agency in place, which is focusing on in-fill projects intended to revitalize existing properties like the Railyard and West River Street.
“I worked for the City of Concord for five years, which was pretty much at buildout, so we focused on in-fill, assembling multiple parcels into a larger project,” said David Griffith, Truckee’s redevelopment and housing coordinator. “And that will most likely be the case in Truckee at buildout.”
Because construction will continue with remodeling and revitalization, the town government ” and the town’s economy ” won’t be left with a hole where development used to be.
“Buildout won’t really affect town government. We will refocus on redevelopment, not growth issues,” McLaughlin said. “Construction and development will always remain a significant part of our economy.”
Even so, Hall said that the town council has considered the need to diversify Truckee’s economy.
“We are looking at tourism becoming more year-round, as well as light industry and service technology. We don’t want heavy industry, but clean industry would work,” Hall said.
Mark Tanner, president of the board for the Contractors Association of Truckee Tahoe, said he expects to see some changes in the construction industry as Truckee approaches buildout.
“At buildout contractors will be re-allocating where they do business, re-tooling up to specialize in different things,” Tanner said. “We could see a lot of contractors ready to retire; they won’t want to retool to do that type of construction.”
After watching the Tahoe Basin construction industry boom in the 1970s and ’80s, board member Frank Ross of the Contractors Association of Truckee Tahoe said the slow-down in construction on the lake would likely occur in Truckee as well.
“The number of larger firms in Tahoe City is probably three to four, while in Truckee there are probably 15 to 20 larger firms,” Ross said. “I would imagine as Truckee approaches buildout, it will more resemble what we see in the Basin.”
Ross also attested to the shift from new development to redevelopment and remodeling that has already occurred around Lake Tahoe.
“The percent of new construction we are doing in the basin, which requires a TRPA allocation, is maybe 5 percent, while redevelopment on commercial or residential (tearing down and rebuilding) is about 25 percent, and 75 percent is remodeling,” Ross said.
When that change occurs in Truckee, Tanner said it wouldn’t only affect the contractors, but would change the labor force as well.
“My company does about 80 percent new construction and 20 percent remodeling, if that were reversed we would need more skilled labor,” Tanner said. “That would be the biggest change; we don’t have that labor pool right now.”