In Lake Tahoe development struggle, California blinks, Nevada wins

STATELINE, Nev. — Almost as long as California and Nevada have shared Lake Tahoe’s pricey shoreline, the two states have harbored competing visions of how best to prosper from the region’s stunning natural beauty while preserving the lake’s deep-azure color and remarkable clarity.

At times, the disputes have flared into what Joanne Marchetta, executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, describes as a “red-hot crucible for debate and dissonance.”

But even with that prickly history, the dispute that ended last week with a vote in the California Assembly stands out as contentious.

The passage of the California bill was the final step that ended years of hard bargaining over future development in the region. A revised plan will allow higher density and taller structures — the sort of glitzy development that California sought to curtail when it entered into a joint planning compact with Nevada four decades ago and created the Tahoe planning agency.

After the regional plan was adopted late last year, Nevada’s fiercely anti-regulation forces pushed for still more changes. They pressured California to submit by threatening — for the seventh time — to withdraw from the compact.


The maneuver was political brinkmanship, playing on California’s fears about what would happen on the Nevada side of the lake without the planning compact. It worked.

“If we lost the compact, the permitting authority will go to the local jurisdictions,” said Darcie Goodman Collins, executive director of the California-based League to Save Lake Tahoe. “I’m afraid that the end result is that decisions would be made without having that bigger picture regional puzzle in mind. There would be no limit.”

Other environmental organizations have a different view.

“We got rolled,” said Trent W. Orr, an attorney with Earthjustice, which is representing the Sierra Club in a lawsuit challenging the regional plan.

“California should be in the driver’s seat,” Orr said, noting that the state contributes six times more funding to lake restoration projects than Nevada does. “Why is the one holding most of the chips saying ‘Uncle’?”

The primary environmental concern for the states is the water quality of the lake, whose legendary clarity has clouded in recent decades. Taxpayers have put up nearly $2 billion to keep Lake Tahoe blue.

The decline began when construction around the lake took off after nearby Squaw Valley hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics. Little attention was paid to where buildings were sited and how much of the lake’s foreshore was paved over.

The so-called legacy development from 50 years ago placed motels in sensitive wetlands and laid down so much pavement that rainfall and snowmelt cannot be sufficiently absorbed into the soil. Instead, everything ends up in the lake.

That runoff drags not just fine particulates into the water but also fertilizers, pesticides and oil and fuel from the roads.

The regional plan provides incentives for businesses and homeowners to remove pavement and rip out old structures so the runoff can be absorbed.

The trade-offs for commercial developers involve credits for buying and permanently removing midcentury motels or other damaging infrastructure, then using development credits to build elsewhere or add to an existing site.

Height restrictions on the foreshore remain in place to protect views, and higher density can occur only in already identified town centers. South Lake Tahoe has a six-story limit, for example, and in Stateline, where 197-foot towers already stand, four more parcels can hold structures built to that height.

The formula for credits and height limits is complicated, but the overall vision is straightforward: Planners want to cluster development, increase density in some areas and encourage pedestrian traffic by siting hotels near amenities.

Opponents of the plan say that tearing out pavement and eliminating old structures will help but that any environmental gains will be wiped out by the added development. They also believe the plan will change the rural ambience of the lake.

“Save a natural a treasure by further urbanizing it?” Orr said. “It’s not just refurbishing; it’s expanding.”

Aside from the plan itself, the legislatures of both states have approved changes to the compact that allow local governments more autonomy over some planning decisions. Under the bill the California Assembly approved unanimously last week, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency — effectively an environmental regulatory agency — must now consider the economic impact of its decisions.

That language was included at the insistence of Nevada negotiators, but Marchetta of the Tahoe planning agency said it has always sought to balance appropriate environmental regulations while encouraging development.

It’s all part of the ongoing compromise necessary to govern the lake, she said.

Finding space for growth in the highly controlled Tahoe basin is a challenge. With 90% of the land in the region in government ownership, nearly every scrap of private land is already spoken for.

The region’s carrying capacity — the maximum buildout of residential and commercial properties — is set by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, and local planners struggle to operate withing that ceiling. Whereas municipalities elsewhere in the state invite commercial development of almost any kind, here much sought-after development is turned away.

Consider Nevada’s Douglas County. The county has an allocation for 102 new residences, period, until the end of time. County manager Steve Mokrohisky said he gets approval to build about six to eight new homes per year.

It’s tighter for commercial space. A local hospital recently brought the county plans to add a 40,000-square-foot wing, which county officials welcomed: a critical service that would employ professionals making good wages.

But that single project would have exceeded the county’s entire new commercial space allotment.

“We’ve got 36,000 square feet, in total, for future growth,” Mokrohisky said. “That’s like a quarter of a Wal-Mart.”

Critics of the plan have warned that it will lead to pell-mell development and a Reno-ization of the picturesque lake. Public officials on both sides of the lake say that is an exaggeration.

But everyone agrees that Lake Tahoe’s foreshore will take on a new look: denser and taller development squeezed into town centers and fewer of the region’s dowdy but affordable mom-and-pop ’60-s era motels.

With the new plan, Lake Tahoe is going to grow, it’s going to skew a bit more upscale and it’s likely to become a costlier destination.

And, if all goes well, the lake’s water quality will improve.

Or it won’t.

On that point, disagreement remains.