Tahoe Emerges From the Time Capsule
With many of Tahoe’s town centers frozen in the 1960s and 70s, the new Regional Plan may spark investment and concentrate developmentFriday, January 11, 2013 by David Bunker
Tahoe’s new regional plan can be viewed many ways — an act of self-preservation, a pendulum swing in planning, a plea for private investment. But what it seeks to do is indisputable — to re-engineer Tahoe development into denser town centers with taller buildings and more coverage.
The policies and development incentives in the new Tahoe regional plan intend to crack the Tahoe time capsule that has kept the Basin’s town centers in stasis for the past 30-plus years. The invitation for new growth in Tahoe’s downtown areas makes it a truly revolutionary plan. For an agency that has spent the past 40-plus years regulating, controlling, and slowing growth, a plan that encourages dense, tall development is a true sea change in TRPA philosophy.
The change comes out of pragmatism and necessity. The federal money that used to flow so freely into the Tahoe Basin is no longer coming in the volume it did in the decade after the famous 1997 Clinton/Gore Tahoe Summit. And a Nevada Senate bill threatened to dissolve the TRPA if a regional plan were not passed by the end of 2012. In a fight for its life, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Board passed Dec. 12 a regional plan that seeks to fill a gap left by shrinking federal and state funding, re-ignite the vibrancy of the five town centers around the Tahoe Basin, and harness private investment to protect wetlands and restore water quality.
Unless a lawsuit sends it into legal purgatory, the new regional plan will give more planning control back to local governments; it will allow buildings of up to 197 feet on four casino parcels in Stateline and up to four stories in downtown Tahoe City, Kings Beach, Incline Village, and Meyers; and it will offer development incentives to people who remove homes and buildings from wetland areas and far-flung parcels, and re-locate them into town centers.
Unsurprisingly, the plan’s passage touched off a round of self-congratulation, criticism, and the looming threat of a legal challenge. TRPA Executive Director Joanne Marchetta said the update plan will make possible “the next quantum leap of environmental gain,” even as the Tahoe Area Sierra Club’s Laurel Ames was saying that it “mangled current planning protections, turned them on their head, and abandoned the lake.”
Ames said that the Tahoe Area Sierra Club is thinking “very, very seriously” about a legal challenge to the plan. Any legal challenge would likely come from Earthjustice, an organization that for decades was the legal arm of the Sierra Club, but is now a separate organization. Opponents have until Feb. 10 to file litigation.
But the threat of Nevada pulling out of the compact and dissolving the agency if an update were not passed kept one of the TRPA’s fiercest and most effective critics from challenging the plan. On Dec. 12, the League to Save Lake Tahoe issued a statement that said “finalizing and supporting this plan provides certainty for policy makers and businesses alike so that we can all move forward with the important jobs of revitalizing our communities and restoring and protecting Lake Tahoe.”
A pendulum swing in planning
Casino development coupled with a building boom that followed the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics led to the growth controls of the 1987 Tahoe Regional Plan. Since that plan passed, more than 6,000 residential lots have been developed, but little investment has taken place in downtown communities around the lake. There have been a few exceptions — the Heavenly Village in South Lake Tahoe, and recently approved but unbuilt, projects like Boulder Bay in Crystal Bay. The 1987 regional plan was remarkably effective in freezing Tahoe in time.
From a regional perspective, however, the 1987 plan did not so much stop growth as export it. The demand for “Tahoe” vacation homes, ski condos, and resort development spilled over to Truckee, Northstar, Squaw Valley, and the Martis Valley. Meanwhile, Tahoe suffered economically and environmentally. Aging town centers and decaying parking lots, roads, and buildings have been pinpointed by scientists as a major contributor to the sediment that is clouding Lake Tahoe. Tahoe’s clarity continues to decline, especially in the summer, which reached its absolute lowest points ever recorded between 2008 and 2011.
Now, Tahoe business and property owners clearly want some of that growth to come back to the Tahoe Basin in targeted redevelopment locations in town centers. The TRPA agrees and is willing to allow buildings of up to four stories, approve up to 70 percent coverage, and allow the transfer of development rights to urban centers in order to spark downtown redevelopment. And most surprising to Tahoe residents who have experienced TRPA’s vice-like regulations in the past, small and mid-sized development projects will not even have to come to the TRPA for approval. The local city or county can approve these plans themselves, and can fashion “area plans” that comply with the regional plan but chart a community’s unique vision for their portion of the lake.
This is where the meat of the disagreements over the new regional plan emerges. Some Tahoe environmentalists see the regional plan as a step backward to pre-1980 days. They fear that more height, more coverage, and more density will repeat the mistakes of the past.
“We have never had an economic study of Tahoe,” said Ames, the conservation chair of the Tahoe Area Sierra Club. “We have had marketing studies, and what do marketing studies tell you? They tell you how to get more tourists. And maybe we don’t need that. Maybe we are at capacity. Maybe we are over capacity.”
Ann Nichols, who heads the North Tahoe Preservation Alliance, said she favors re-development but not the additional height and density that is part of the regional plan.
“We just need better stuff, not bigger, higher, more,” she said.
Nichols is also concerned with the regional plan’s move to hand planning decisions back to the local governments around the lake.
“Local control is a problem because counties are revenue driven, and everything is fine with them,” said Nichols. “That is why the TRPA was created in the first place, because you could not trust the counties. I think they are abdicating their responsibility.”
But Tahoe business owners, who have struggled through one of the most difficult economies in national history, have an entirely different viewpoint.
Like many North Tahoe business owners, Dave Polivy of Kings Beach’s Tahoe Mountain Sports, has seen the rise of development at Northstar, Squaw Valley, Truckee and the Martis Valley. Meanwhile, despite plans and some project proposals, Kings Beach has remained much the same.
The new regional plan is a chance for Kings Beach to re-invent its downtown core with taller, mixed-used buildings that create a “critical mass” in the town center — all guided by a community vision. Unlike previous programs like the CEP (Community Enhancement Program), which dealt with development on a project-by-project basis, the regional plan will open the door for a more cohesive, community-guided vision for redevelopment.
The regional plan could spur investment into Kings Beach redevelopment projects and “link projects together to make a cool, integrated piece of a downtown,” Polivy said.
For Polivy and Tahoe Mountain Sports, the plan may also mean the difference between staying in Kings Beach or leaving town because he can’t find the space to grow into as he expands his business.
“I have 2,500 square feet at my shop, and we are bursting at the seams, and there is nowhere for me to go,” said Polivy.
Dave Ferrari, owner of Ferrari’s Crown Resort in Kings Beach, said he does not expect the regional plan to kick off “a huge renaissance right away on the North Shore.” However, he said, “we are on the lake. It is Lake Tahoe, and so I think we will see investment.”
For Ferrari, who has seen innumerable businesses leave Kings Beach, and even had some of his hotel guests tell him they may stay in Tahoe City on their next visit to Lake Tahoe because there is not a lot to do in Kings Beach at night, a plan for new investment in Kings Beach is a welcome thought.
“I really feel optimistic,” he said.
If the Tahoe Regional Plan goes into effect and is successful in improving Tahoe’s environment and economy simultaneously, it may mean a paradigm shift for a Tahoe environmental movement that has spent decades laser-focused on stopping or controlling development.
“We don’t have enough money to tear everything down and restore it, so our only option is to tear it down and build something better,” said Steve Frisch, president of the Sierra Business Council.
“I think the 1987 to 2007 plan was focused on eliminating the clear and obvious problems. And we now have to be more sophisticated than that.”
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