Is it time for a Tahoe County?
For those in local government in Truckee and the Lake Tahoe Basin, the idea of a Lake Tahoe or High Sierra county has been kicked around for many years.
“There has been discussion over the years that communities on the Eastern slope had more issues in common than with communities on the western slope,” said Truckee Town Manager Steve Wright, who has been with the town since its incorporation 10 years ago.
Truckee Mayor Ted Owens believes the idea is about self-determination and better planning in a growing rural environment.
“It’s about autonomy and planning,” he said.
After learning about a group of Santa Barbara County residents trying to break away from the south county, Nevada County Supervisor Barbara Green felt that the concept might actually be feasible here in the Sierra.
“A lot of people talked about this for years and I thought, ‘Not in our lifetime,'” she said. But after learning about the Citizen’s for County Organization, a group of north Santa Barbara County residents fed up with the balance of power in the county, Green decided she would like to know what eastern Nevada County residents think of something similar.
For Green, the idea is more about practicality and philosophical notions about boundaries.
“The whole mind set in this rugged mountain environment is different than the foothills,” Green said, adding that western county issues are much different than those in eastern county.
Green also noted that services needed in Truckee and North Tahoe – like snow removal – are foreign concepts in county seats located in the foothills.
Her vision – and the vision of other community leaders – also involves portions of El Dorado, Placer and Sierra counties, which would come together to form a Lake Tahoe County.
Since 1974, when the California State Legislature liberalized secession laws, eight attempts to form new counties have been made, but none have succeeded.
El Dorado County came close in 1984 when 46 percent of voters opted to form South Lake Tahoe County.
The 1974 law requires organizers to submit a petition with signatures from 25 percent of the registered voters in the proposed county. If the petition is declared valid by a county clerk, then the governor is required to set up a five-member committee – the County Formation Review Commission – to review the economic viability of the proposed county, debt distribution, population and boundaries.
“Even if the committee studies it and it turns out to be the stupidest thing and has no fiscal feasibility… it still goes to the ballot,” said Peter Detwiler, a consultant for the Senate Local Government Committee, who has studied past secession attempts in California.
If elected by a simple majority in both the proposed county and countywide, the new county becomes official, and another election – this time for the county seat and county officers – is held in the new county.
All of the past secession attempts have been attempted breakaways from one county.
But calling the High Sierra concept a “secession attempt” may be a misnomer, bringing to mind images of the Civil War. Instead, many agree this concept may be different than other county secession attempts in California, which Detwiler splits into two categories – rural and suburban secession.
“The rural breakaways were typically people who were very unhappy with land use regulations,” he said.
Suburban breakaways, he said, usually involved residents that were unhappy with county spending, typically on health and welfare services.
“As an outside observer, there were racial undertones in some of those,” Detwiler said.
Detwiler acknowledged that a High Sierra or Tahoe County concept might not fit into one of his two categories.
Besides service issues, the basin portions of El Dorado, Placer, Nevada and Sierra counties have tourism economies that deal with similar problems – such as a lack of affordable housing.
New county formation isn’t always the best answer, Detwiler said.
“If you have a political problem, you need a political solution,” he said. “If you have a governance problem you need a governance solution.”
At this point, the idea is only a concept and issues still need to be defined before community leaders can decide whether forming a new county is the best path.
“If there’s support out there, I would definitely look at how it would get accomplished,” said Placer County Supervisor Rex Bloomfield, who briefly pursued the idea after he was elected 10 years ago. At the time, he decided he would rather concentrate his energy on other things.
“I just didn’t want to spend a lot of my time spinning my wheels and going nowhere,” he said.
Barbara Green is seeking input from community members regarding the idea of a Lake Tahoe County. She can be reached at 582-7826.