My Turn: At Tahoe, policy by trial is business as usual
March 13, 2012
TAHOE CITY, Calif. and#8212; Collaboration. Community input. Transparency. Debate. Decision. These are words that describe a process by which we, as neighbors and citizens, resolve local initiatives and their impact on our communities.
We use community input and public debate to ensure our decision-makers understand our concerns and make informed decisions about issues that impact our lives. The process is a hallmark of our democracy and#8212; except at Lake Tahoe. At Lake Tahoe, all too often special interest groups bring lawsuits to extract more from this process than what they are entitled. Itand#8217;s policy by trial, and at Lake Tahoe, it is business as usual.
An open, public, community debate on a subject isnand#8217;t intended to define winners and losers, only that everyone participating has a chance to be heard. The process ensures that decisions are made in full view and that officials making those decisions are exposed to public scrutiny.
Lake Tahoe is already one of the most difficult locations in the United States in which to conduct business. Even simple proposals are burdened by a permit process that is unreliable, unpredictable, expensive and time-consuming. There are those who argue the approval process at Tahoe should be difficult in order to protect the national treasure that is the Lake. I happen to agree with that in principle, as long as the rules are clear, the process is defined, and there is transparency across the board.
The latest project to run this gauntlet is the redevelopment of the Homewood Mountain Resort. After five years, countless public debates and presentations, and an extensive EIR that reportedly cost $1 million to assemble, the plan was approved by both the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and Placer County. These are the decision-making bodies, or so everyone thought. The approved plan for a community-scaled resort village and hotel had been adjusted many times to reflect the concerns of citizens and public officials, and arguably includes the most extensive collection of environmental improvements ever included in a single project in the basin.
The developers did not get all they originally sought, but in the end a viable project was approved. Predictably, a group filed suit demanding that five years of effort be tossed out and the whole process begun all over again. Why? Because they didnand#8217;t like the outcome.
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They wonand#8217;t succeed in overturning the result, but here is what happens in cases like this: The participants spend huge sums of time and money while the plaintiff tries to get a concession of some kind. Any concession makes it worthwhile, because when they feel they have wasted enough of the defendantsand#8217; time and money, the plaintiff offers to and#8220;settleand#8221; the case as long as it includes payment of their legal fees by the defendant.
So very little is actually gained, and the plaintiff has almost no risk when the settlement is likely to cover their expenses. All of this is done in the back room of counsel, and the result is often shrouded under a blanket of confidentiality. So much for transparency.
We are a nation of laws, and those laws allow anyone to bring their grievances to the courtroom. At Lake Tahoe, this opportunity is used not to right a wrong, but to hijack the democratic process and bend valid outcomes to fit what the plaintiffs want and give their attorneys something to do. Itand#8217;s just plain wrong.
Democracy isnand#8217;t easy. It requires a commitment to listen as well as to be heard, and a willingness to change oneand#8217;s opinion or acceptance that the opinions cannot be reconciled based on the public debate. The process may be frustrating and lengthy, but it should make us better neighbors and citizens and lead to better results.
But there is something fundamentally wrong when people and organizations with narrow interests wonand#8217;t accept the outcome of any open and transparent process, then attempt to set policy or influence decisions with costly, eleventh-hour litigation. It cheats all of us, wastes taxpayer money, and discourages positive investments in our environment and economy.
The communities around Lake Tahoe are in trouble. Her beauty belies the truth of high unemployment, deteriorating infrastructure, declining enrollment in schools, a loss of population, and a middle class that is abandoning Tahoe for greener pastures.
We desperately need redevelopment to not only reverse that trend, but to provide the environmental improvements that the Lake itself needs. Lawsuits donand#8217;t achieve those goals, so letand#8217;s stop the litigation, and honor the conversation.
Wally Auerbach is a Tahoe City resident.