Taking Lake Tahoe to new heights: Development history in the basin | SierraSun.com

Taking Lake Tahoe to new heights: Development history in the basin

Properties like the Biltmore, which will see massive renovations in the coming years, will see stormwater BMP completion that is estimated to reduce up to 30,000 pounds of sediment a year.
File photo

Lake Tahoe has been a sought after destination location for years, and has quickly grown since development rapidly began in the 1960’s. Since then, South Lake Tahoe has grown with a casino corridor and a number of hotels and motels available to stay in the area, and the North Shore quickly expanding with many new developments in the works. But what did it take to create this paradise that attract visitors from all over the world? And where will the skylines of the basin go next? 

Where it started 

In the 1960’s, Lake Tahoe was faced with rapid development, environmental threats, and regulatory jurisdictions that were fractured among two states, five counties, and one city. The states of California and Nevada came together to create the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency in 1969 with the consent of congress through a bi-state compact. This agency was created to manage growth and development in the watershed and prevent further environmental damage through a shared, cooperative mission to conserve and restore the lake and its surrounding environment. 

The TRPA is unique still in the United States, as it is the first environmental organization that has land authority that crosses state lines. 

The TRPA’s responsibilities ranges from regional planning, development and redevelopment oversight, regulatory enforcement, and implementation of environmental protection and restoration projects for the region. In 1969, entering the B i-State compact required the TRPA establish a Regional Plan for the Lake Tahoe basin. It needed to achieve environmental standards called thresholds. 

“Environmental threshold standards set long-term environmental goals for the region,” said TRPA’s Public Information Officer Jeff Cowen. “Many of the thresholds will take generations to achieve and will require a lasting commitment to environmental improvement over time. The Regional Plan outlines actions to attain these thresholds that restore Lake Tahoe wile balancing economic and community vitality.” 

This means that many of the developments that visitors know and love are all adding into the total amount of allowed buildout in the region. Cowen explained that there is currently a cap on developments in the basin, which the region may see reached by 2045. 

This, along with many other measures, were put in place in order to protect from overdevelopment. The Regional Plan sets an urban boundary around all communities for a number of reasons, including to protect wildlife and persevere open spaces and recreational lands. It also prohibits further subdivisions of land and building new roads. 

“It protects sensitive lands and requires private development,” said Cowen. “It also set caps on future development. TRPA implements an innovative growth management system of development rights and allocations to achieve environmental goals.” 

Currently, the TRPA is the leader in environmental standards set in the Lake Tahoe basin. But the agency works closely with other agencies, organizations, and private property owners and developers to implement Environmental Improvement Program projects that not only restore the environment, but enhance it and the community. 

The Environment Takes the Fall 

There is a need for development and redevelopment in the basin. 

“Each redevelopment project brings water quality improvements, walkability, scenic improvements, and sometimes workforce housing,” said Cowen. “When the region’s economy suffers, environmental improvements and investments can slow. Projects help the economy and provide jobs as well.” 

But prior to the Bi-State Compact, what did development in Lake Tahoe look like? 

According to Cowen, more than 75% of Tahoe’s marshes and wetlands, and 50% of stream zones were either damages or destroyed. Those wetlands and streams served as natural filters for the lake.

“Lake Tahoe is considered an ultra-oligotrophic lake, which means it is 99.9% pure and practically devoid of organic and inorganic materials,” said Cowen. “That makes it incredibly fragile and responsive to inputs, and also why it’s so blue!” 

The need to measure lake clarity was derived from the fine particle sediments that pollute the lake and come mainly from urban stormwater runoff. As more developments popped up in the basin, the clarity of the lake lost depth, decreasing until it averaged at around 70-feet in the 1990’s. Today, the average lake clarity depth is around 64-feet and has been stabilized for approximately 20 years. 

In order to restore lake clarity back to at least 100 feet by 2076, the Lake Tahoe Total Maximum Daily Load plan was created by state agencies in California and Nevada and was approved by the EPA in 2011. The plan is used to  reverse the impact on water clarity and provide oversight on the implementation efforts to reduce pollutants discharged in the lake and implements BMPs, or Best Management Practices. 

Lake clarity faces a number of other challenges that include wildfires, large runoff events, increasing temperatures and invasive species. 

In addition, the sandy, loose soils are easily disturbed when vegetation is removed. 

“Science has shown that in any given watershed, the higher the amount of impervious surface, the lower the water quality,” said Cowen. “The U.S. EPA also considers impervious surfaces, what we in the Tahoe basin call land coverage, to be a big contributor to non point source water pollution because it limits the capacity of soils to filter runoff. Tucked into the nooks and crannies around the lake are about 41,000 private parcels, all connected by impervious roadways to streams and the lake.” 

In order to prevent the runoff from these parcels around the lake, the Regional Plan requires new projects to comply with water quality standards. They do this by installing BMPs to prevent soil erosion and capture stormwater onsite. This means all new buildings and major redevelopments get BMPs as part of their permit process. 

In 2022, there were 20,435 BMP certificates issues in Lake Tahoe on both the California and Nevada sides. The 2012 Regional Plan created land coverage incentives fro developed residential parcels to get a BMP competition certification, which has seen the TRPA issue an additional 4,500 BMP retrofit certificates since 2013. 

Overall, the region has been able to achieve a 23% reduction in fine sediment particles, equating to more than 550,000 pounds of fine sediment a year being kept out of the lake, along with tens of thousands of pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus. 

Redeveloping the Basin 

Prior to the development of the Regional Plan in 1987, Lake Tahoe’s town cents were nearly fully developed. What are now called ‘strip malls’ line the roads and major highways of the basin, with a building and parking lots facing the street and little room for walking or biking. Not only do these developments lack water quality BMPs, but they can impact scenic standards set by the TRPA and are less energy efficient than newer buildings. 

There are plenty of developments that have sat idle for years, with little to no work done to them at all. Classic examples that any local would know include the Tahoe Biltmore, which recently began redevelopment under new owners in 2022, the CalNeva, and the Tahoe Inns, all located on the north shore. 

The Tahoe City Lodge is another development that is seeing a face-lift, and is the first redevelopment project in Tahoe City in 50 years. 

“For perspective, 90% of the pollutants affecting Lake Tahoe’s clarity are coming from urban upland areas,” said Cowen. “Only 11% of the basin is either commercial, tourist, or residentially zoned. The rest is recreation and conservation land. Further still, town centers are only 1.6% of the land in the basin. We don’t have a break down of town center to pollutant load, but it’s a high percentage of the 90% from urban uplands.” 

Redeveloping properties is imperative to the health. According to public records, since 2013, more than $330 million in improvements have been made to hotels, casinos, and other tourist accommodations in the Lake Tahoe basin, and more than $100 million in commercial improvements have been completed. 

Properties like the Biltmore, which will see massive renovations in the coming years, will see stormwater BMP completion that is estimated to reduce up to 30,000 pounds of sediment a year. The changes to the property will see updated dining and shopping areas that move away from ‘strip malls’ and move into walkability and better access to public transportation, which will overall reduce vehicle trips. 

“Heavenly Village in south shore is an example of environmental redevelopment,” said Cowen. “The area was considered blighted with a number of one-story buildings each with their own parking lot. Through redevelopment, the uses were concentrated into fewer buildings, open space, and pedestrian engagement was created with vehicle trips reduces. Stormwater management was the main gain for the lake.” 

Potential Moving Forward

Prior the TRPA, there were plans for Lake Tahoe. But those plans included a city the size of San Francisco right here in the basin, with a projected population from regional planners of 750,000 by the 1980’s. Other plans included a freeway encircling the basin with a bridge over Emerald Bay, with talk of roads where the Tahoe Rim Trail now lies. 

Today, the year-round population of the basin is 57,000. 

Without the TRPA, those plans could come to fruition. Throughout the Regional Plan, environment threshold carrying capacities for the basin were developed in order to prevent the mass development of Lake Tahoe. 

“To achieve and maintain those thresholds, development was capped and a limited amount of new development is allowed in the basin,” said Cowen. “TRPA set up a growth management system that allocates new development to each jurisdiction every year. The amount is meant to match the pace of environmental impacts, restoration, and reinvestments, so that growth and restoration go hand in hand.” 

There are multiple developments and redevelopments that are currently happening, and many awaiting approval by the TRPA. In Incline Village, Nevada, a new Natural Grocers has been in the works, which is a pleasant surprise for the small community.

“It’s just fascinating to see a lot of projects on the North Shore, especially where there hasn’t been any reinvestment or redevelopment necessarily across the north shore, except a handful of projects,” said Cowen. “The Regional Plan update was intended to try and encourages this kind of stuff. So we’re really looking at what’s so hard about it and what can we do differently, and try to encourage it.” 

Potential for growth under the Regional Plan is remarkably small. Total residential development is only expected to increase by 8%, with commercial development by 9%. Under the plan, no new tourist accommodation units are being allocated. 

“The development caps in the basin will add a fraction of what currently exists,” said Cowen. “The question is, what do we want that potential development to do? What form do we want it to take?” 

Right now, the Regional Plan directs that limited amount of access to development to town centers, where there will be high densities of people. Here, walkability and biking paths can be improved and reinvestment in pre-existing properties can be prioritized. Focus on town centers also allow for the encouragement of water quality improvements and create a net decrease in vehicle miles travelled. 

“New recommendations coming out of the Tahoe Living and Community Revitalization Working Group are suggesting the basin should encourage as much of the remaining residential development go to deed-restricted workforce housing,” said Cowen. 

The TRPA will continue doing the work it needs to do within itself and with outside agencies to continue restoring and protecting the basin. Currently, public service and recreation improvements run with he TRPA include Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care facility, Barton Center of Excellence, improvements at Paradise Park in Meyers, Calif., among a long list of programs and projects designed to protect the lake and it’s environment. 

Only time will tell what the landscape of Lake Tahoe will shape out to be. 

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