TRPA prevails in 18-year-old case
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a 1980s-era building moratorium in the Tahoe Basin was constitutional.
The 6-3 decision means the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency does not have to compensate private property owners affected by a development ban imposed by the TRPA in 1981.
The Tahoe-Sierra Preservation Council, a landowners’ group, filed suit against the agency in 1984, arguing the ban amounted to an unconstitutional “taking” of property without payment.
John Marshall, TRPA’s general counsel, said the decision prevents the agency from having to pay millions of dollars to the 400 people who filed suit. He said the money can now go to environmental improvement programs.
“This allows the Tahoe Basin to move forward, to focus on the future without getting trapped in battles of the past,” he said. “Did the moratorium inconvenience people? Yes. Was it responsibly done? Yes. Did it help efforts to protect the lake when there was a rush to develop at the time? Definitely.”
Mary Gillanfarr, executive director of the TSPC, based in Tahoe City, said she was disappointed how the lawsuit changed as it made its way to the highest court.
“The issue was made more narrow so, somehow, the fact that many of our plaintiffs will never be able to build on their property, has been lost,” she said. “A great many people have had to sell to (government) agencies at prices far below real-market value. It was a financial loss but also the loss of freedom to build a house.”
Keith Klein, a plaintiff and a TRPA Governing Board member for six years in the late 1980s, said he was “disgusted” by the ruling. The TRPA rejected his plans to build a house on Upper Kingsbury Grade because it lacked curbs and gutters to prevent sediment from flowing into Lake Tahoe.
“So they held me up there,” Klein said. “I was three or four hours away from getting a building permit before they issued a moratorium and stopped everything.”
Klein, a 60-year-old architect, sold the property to the U.S. Forest Service for $32,500 when it had been appraised at $75,000. He said he was forced to sell the land because the bank called in the loan.
“If they need to take private property, so be it, but when they play a game that devalues investment, that’s not fair,” he said. “Why should private property owners have to individually pay for public welfare. That is the government’s job.”
Tuesday’s ruling only addressed a moratorium in place from late 1981 to the spring of 1984. A lower court injunction continued the ban, following lawsuits by the state of California and League to Save Lake Tahoe.
“We are extremely pleased with the decision. It has enormous implications on a national level and also great significance to protection of the Lake Tahoe environment,” said Catherine Parson, spokeswoman at the League. “Part of reason we’re so ecstatic is that if it had gone the other way, the implications could possibly have been devastating. With such a conservative court, it really could have gone either way.”
Building resumed in 1986, and in 1987, TRPA adopted a new regional plan. TRPA regulations, which apply to all lands in the Tahoe Basin, strictly limit development on steep grades or in sensitive stream zones.
About 50 of the most environmentally sensitive parcels involved in the Supreme Court case remain off limits to construction, Marshall said. The rest have been sold, developed, or are eligible for development.
“(The landowners) were simply hung out to dry,” said Michael Berger, a Los Angeles attorney who represented TSPC at the Supreme Court. “I’m not concerned to go far enough to call it dangerous precedent. I am concerned what impact it may have in giving government agencies the feeling that they have a lot of latitude and very little consequence for issuing regulations like this one.”
However, Town of Truckee Community Development Director Tony Lashbrook thought the ruling maintained an important balance between two oft competing interests.
“I think it was a pretty common-sense decision,” Lashbrook said. “It doesn’t really change anything, but it maintains the balance between property rights and public interest.”