Tahoe Regional Planning Agency: Controversial from the start
LAKE TAHOE ” The debate surrounding the best way to manage development in the Tahoe Basin raged for months. Since the first draft of an interim regional plan was presented at a public meeting in May 1971, the newly formed Tahoe Regional Planning Agency had received hundreds of comments and letters. Some came from homeowners, worried that the new land designations would strip them of their property rights. Other comments came from their neighbors, worried that without a plan, the beauty of the Tahoe Basin would be stripped. Still, the agency stressed that this was just a preliminary study ” no ordinances had been put into place yet.
“This is not an ultimate plan upon which the doors are locked and the situation fixed, but a picture of the planning process as it has evolved to today in an effort to satisfy the requirements of the compact,” said Executive Director Justus K. Smith on June 21, 1971, at a meeting at the Kings Beach Elementary School auditorium. “This is merely a view of where we are today; we have a long way to go even between now and September, let alone the period following.”
But his comments did not quell the roar of worries coming from the public ” concerns about private property rights, the future of development and gaming in the basin, but most of all what would happen to the lake.
Some argued that both the beauty of the lake and property values could be preserved.
“To tell a person what we can do with his property does usurp an individual’s rights in some ways, but in the long run zoning will protect property values,” said R.F. Fisher of the League to Save Lake Tahoe, at a public meeting on June 21, 1971.
When the process neared an end and a new executive director came to the helm, he mirrored the statement Smith made months before.
“We are dealing in a complex society and a very complex environment at Lake Tahoe and it is not the kind of thing that I am going to say is going to be a simple solution ” because it isn’t,” said Dick M. Heikka, Smith’s successor in September 1971.
Finally, more than year after the agency’s first meeting in March 1970, the new regional plan passed the Governing Board with a unanimous vote on Dec. 22, 1971.
The editorial in the Tahoe Daily Tribune summed up the outcome days later:
“… Perhaps now we can get on with the business of straightening out the future of the Tahoe basin,” read the editorial, which ran Dec. 24, 1971. “The plan is not perfect, but then it was never claimed to be. Opposition will still be voiced, but then that too is as it should be. What is important is that we have a beginning upon which to build.
“The planners involved in the regional document admit that the work is only the beginning. If everyone can accept the idea that there are not ultimate ‘truths’ in planning and that concepts change and should be modified on the basis of new information, then the plan has an excellent chance of being a valuable tool.”
The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency was formed as a bi-state agency by the legislatures of California and Nevada, culminating with its approval by congress and President Richard Nixon in December 1969.
While development boomed around the lake, particularly since the 1960 Winter Olympic games, there was no central agency to develop a region- wide plan.
In fact some developers sometimes went to each of the five counties surrounding the lake to find the best regulations, said Coe Swobe, a Nevada state senator who was instrumental in developing the first bi-state compact.
Under its original compact, the mission of the agency was to “maintain an equilibrium between the region’s natural endowment and its manmade environment,” “to preserve the scenic beauty and recreational opportunities of the region,” and to “enhance the efficiency and governmental effectiveness of the region by establishing a area-wide planning agency.”
For his part, first executive director J.K. Smith said he tried to balance the environment and the economy in his proposed regional plan.
“We were trying to reach some sort of happy medium and trying to carry out the mandate that created the agency,” Smith said in an interview with the Bonanza.
His successor, Dick Heikka, who was executive director from 1971 to 1977, said much of his job was negotiating between the local agencies.
“I was in the position of being a compromiser,” Heikka said. “Local governments wanted more development and environmentalists who wanted less development; no matter what you did, someone was upset.”
Today the agency’s compact, revised and then approved in December 1980, holds a similar statement to the 1969 compact ” “to preserve the scenic beauty and outdoor recreational opportunities of the region, there is a need to insure an equilibrium between the region’s natural endowment and its manmade environment.”
This year, the agency marks 40 years of working to fulfill its mandated mission. But as it works to fulfill that mission, some of the same arguments, controversies and adversarial parties keep hashing out their differences.
“You have the Sierra Club and the League on one side, and the developers on the other,” said Swobe, who was also a Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Governing Board member from 2001 to 2008. “Then you have homeowners on one side and people who want to curtail the number of buoys on the other. It becomes repetitive.”
While the sides of the argument haven’t changed drastically since the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s inception, the argument and the tactics have.
Life-long Tahoe resident Laurel Ames worked as a stringer for the San Francisco Chronicle when the agency was first formed, and went on to work for the California Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. She described meetings where attendees threatened the board with a machine gun in a violin case.
“They were going to lose all their property rights and the world was going to end and Tahoe was going to become a wilderness,” she said.
While the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency has been involved in controversies and lawsuits since its beginning ” from shorezone ordinances, to revised compacts, to inter-agency battles and lawsuits ” the public’s understanding of the lake’s environment has shifted, Swobe and others said.
“I would say mid-1990s there became a major shift away from that thinking over toward the idea of we are in a pristine area and the attraction for people is the lake and environment,” said Jim Baetge, former executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and former executive director of the California State Water Resources Control Board.
This shift in consciousness contributed to a new awareness of lake clarity and environmental practices.
Current Executive Director John Singlaub, who is leaving at the end of the month and called the job “relentlessly grinding,” said he has seen the discussion change.
“Today something that is very different is the business community acknowledges that their income comes from the beauty of the lake and the environment so they are less insistent,” Singlaub said. “They understand they have a role in environmental improvement at the lake they accept their role in protecting the lake and that it is a key part of maintaining the tourism based economy.”
– 1969 President Richard M. Nixon approves compact that creates Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.
– 1971 First regional plan approved by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency
– 1971 The Lake Tahoe State Park in Nevada was officially dedicated.
– 1978-1979 California withdraws from the TRPA because it feels that Nevada board members were too pro development.
– 1980 California returns to TRPA.
– 1980 The California state Water Resources Control Board released a plan for safe-guarding Lake Tahoe by barring development on 7,100 lots.
– 1980 Pres. Jimmy Carter signed legislation to protect Lake Tahoe.
– 1981 The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency put a moratorium on new housing around the Lake Tahoe to maintain water quality.
– 1982 Environmental threshold carrying capacities adopted by TRPA.
– 1987 Twenty-year regional plan adopted after facing lawsuits by the California Attorney General and League to Save Lake Tahoe for three years.
– 1987 Moratorium on pier construction placed on two-thirds of the lake.
– 1997 The Lake Tahoe Regional Planning Agency adopted a plan to ban jet skis, specifically 2-stroke engines that propel personal watercraft, effective in June. The jet ski industry filed a suit against the ban in October.
– 1997 Pres. Clinton visited Lake Tahoe and announced that the Forest Service would allot 350 acres to the Washoe Indian tribe for a cultural center and give tribal members access to the edge of Lake Tahoe. He also made an executive order for $50 million over 2 years and 25 initiatives to improve the water quality of Lake Tahoe. He brought with him $26 million worth of natural gas postal trucks and sewage pipes to help preserve the lake.
– 1997 TRPA launched environmental improvement program.
– 1999 Senators Diane Feinstein of California and Harry Reid of Nevada announced the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act. The bill authorized $300 million over 10 years to restore clarity and health to Lake Tahoe.
– 2001 Work began on regional plan update, expected for approval in 2009.
– 2007 The 7-day Angora fire destroyed 254 homes burning 3,100 acres in South Lake Tahoe.
– 2008 TRPA approves shorezone ordinances, which have been in the works for more than two years. Soon after, the Tahoe Lakefront Owners’ association and the League to Save Lake Tahoe sue the agency.
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