My Turn: It is time to change the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency
June 4, 2009
An ominous new battlefront is looming over Lake Tahoe. The Tahoe Basin is more than 90 percent developed. Unable to grow horizontally, the focus is now on growing vertically. It is already under way. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency is leading the assault. When you attend TRPA meetings and workshops, the buzzwords are and#8220;new urbanism,and#8221; and#8220;increased density,and#8221; and#8220;compact developmentand#8221; and and#8220;transect zoning.and#8221; It is already happening with the controversial Community Enhancement Program projects. Even though they are among the largest development programs ever proposed for Lake Tahoe, they are considered pilot or trial programs.
Ironically, TRPA was created to control urbanization. Decades ago the original Regional Planning Compact stated the basic problem as: and#8220;increasing urbanization is threatening the ecological values of the region.and#8221; Yet much of the TRPA’s efforts and budget today are focused on increasing urbanization.
TRPA has monetized the system so that money can become more important than common sense. Is money the solution or the problem? TRPA has enabled and promoted the commoditization of Lake Tahoe through constructs like land coverage and Tourist Accommodation Units. These are now things to be bought, sold and transferred in the ceaseless pursuit of profit. Protecting Lake Tahoe has become a big, complicated business and yet lake clarity continues to decline.
One thing is becoming clearer. The amount of money required to fix Lake Tahoe is skyrocketing. The capital investment required to meet various environmental thresholds is now estimated by TRPA to be $2.5 billion. TRPA plans to pay for this by shifting a bigger portion of the bill to developers. They expect private funding will increase by promoting private large-scale development. Changes to current restrictions on height and density are required to accommodate this urbanization. This is a strategy of fixing one problem by creating another.
People are the main cause of pollution and the environmental problems at Lake Tahoe. TRPA’s plan to urbanize the area is dangerous. TRPA has a choice. It can require tougher standards without enabling or requiring greater basin population. Yes some redevelopment may not happen, and existing developments may ultimately become economically unfeasible, but good developers will find a way to make it happen. Encouraging population growth is the wrong approach for Lake Tahoe.
At the bottom of all this is a huge concern that the process for making these choices appears flawed. The decision makers and principle influencers have too much of a monetary stake in the outcomes. As examples, the TRPA budget relies on development fees and#8212; perhaps increasingly so with pending public budget cuts. They have a stake in more development. Environmental Impact Studies are prepared for TRPA by consultants who are paid by developers. They have a stake in more development. Ultimately some form of the Golden Rule creeps in. He who has the gold makes the rules.
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This is a critical moment for the future of Lake Tahoe. If the TRPA’s plans are enacted, it will be practically impossible to undo them. Furthermore there is no process for public appeal other than litigation. It is time for the public to have a real say. That means more than two minutes of public comment at an occasional TRPA meeting. Ultimately the public and its elected officials are the real source of the means to fix Tahoe’s problems.
Recent decisions by TRPA have created the equivalent of a development arms race. The more development is promoted by the TRPA, the more for-profit development is brought to her shores. In light of the public’s increasing environmental awareness and sustainability concerns, as well as the consistent degradation of Lake Tahoe’s water quality (a bi-state watershed), it is our position that current TRPA policies need to be re-evaluated and re-aligned with its original charter.
While we are not opposed to reasonable development consistent with the character of surrounding neighborhoods and existing roadways, we believe that a moratorium on larger-scale “urbanized” development should be enacted until a new Regional Plan can be updated. Since the TRPA itself has stated its intent to update its Regional Plan, this would seem the most responsible and logical approach to setting consistent and harmonious development guidelines for the long-term preservation and benefit of Lake Tahoe.
To attempt to approve rushed, piece-meal large-scale development without addressing the synergistic and irreversible consequences of such development, is clearly not in the long term best interests of preserving the future of Lake Tahoe.
Ann Nichols is president of the North Tahoe Preservation Alliance and a North Lake Tahoe resident.
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