Judge invalidates regulation allowing more piers on Lake Tahoe

A decades-old skirmish over shoreline development on Lake Tahoe took another turn last week when a federal judge tossed out rules allowing the building of more than 100 private piers and nearly 1,900 mooring buoys in the lake’s famously clear waters.

In a ruling issued Thursday, U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton of the Eastern District of California concluded that regional planners had failed to conduct an adequate environmental review of the effect of the regulations.

The decision scuttles an attempt to resolve one of the most contentious issues at the mountain playground, where private property owners and environmentalists have long clashed.

“It’s just a very emotional issue for people here at Lake Tahoe and one of the most complicated issues we have had to face,” said Julie Regan, external affairs director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which adopted the shoreline regulations in 2008 after two decades of controversy.


Before the rules, fish habitat protections had effectively banned new boating facilities on about two-thirds of Tahoe’s shoreline. But scientific studies concluded that piers don’t have much of an effect on the habitat and lakefront owners clamored for more docking and mooring facilities.

That led to “shorezone amendments” that allowed an additional 128 private piers and 1,862 new mooring buoys, along with 10 public piers, six new boat ramps and 235 boat slips. Environmental groups sued, contending that was too much.

Attorney Wendy Park, who represented the League to Save Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Club, said Karlton’s decision underscored the importance of lake restoration as a standard for the planning agency.

“There’s been a lot of pressure to develop the lake and this sort of forces the agency to stop and reconsider their fundamental duty to restore the lake,” she said. “It’s very significant, I think, in the long-term planning.”


Agency attorneys were analyzing the ruling. Regan said the most immediate concern was the fate of a strict boat inspection program included in the shore rules.

Jan Brisco, executive director of the Tahoe Lakefront Owners Assn., said she was optimistic that the planning agency could draft a new analysis of the shore rules and include them in an upcoming revision of the Tahoe basin’s regional plan.

“It wasn’t just about piers and buoys,” Brisco said. “It’s so much more than that…. No matter what your view, we’ve been waiting to move forward.”