Can Lake Tahoe Stay Blue—and Get Smart?

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Photo: Flickr/Boklm

Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled that an expansion plan for Homewood Mountain Resort on the shores of Lake Tahoe would not be allowed to move forward without further considering a scaled-back alternative with less environmental impact. The Sierra Club, which joined with a local environmental group and Earthjustice to bring the suit against the resort, is calling the decision a victory. But so is Tahoe's regional planning agency, because, it says, at least the judge did not say the environmental review was flawed.

This is the latest in a decades-long battle over how to best protect the awe-inspiring resources in the Lake Tahoe basin through thoughtful planning and management practices—something that had been absent until a 1987 plan aimed to reverse unchecked development.

On December 12, after years of roadblocks and revisions, a new regional plan framework—focused on bringing more mixed-use development into town centers around the lake and improving the area's transportation system—was approved. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA), a collaborative California-Nevada agency charged with managing and improving the environmental health of the Lake Tahoe basin, is now set to begin implementation of the plan on February 11. But the Tahoe Area Sierra Club is considering erecting one more roadblock: a lawsuit to stop the plan, which it says is focused on tourism dollars rather than the lake's health.

The controversy raises a question pertinent not just to the Tahoe region but to mountain communities everywhere: What does “smart growth” look like in an alpine environment?

Back when the largest communities around Lake Tahoe—Truckee and Tahoe City to the north and South Lake Tahoe to the south—were first built up as tourist destinations, little regard was paid to the environmental impact of sprawling lakeside homes or towering casinos. The visual impacts these have made are obvious, but it was their environmental impacts, such as increased sediment run-off into the lake that clouded its legendary clarity, that served as impetus for the 1987 regional plan. The problem with this plan, says Jeff Cowen, communications specialist with the TRPA, is simple: It didn't work.

According to Cowen, the 1987 plan put numerous restrictions on new development while failing to mitigate the problems with storm-water runoff entering the lake through the legacy infrastructure. “Water quality is not getting addressed because no one wants to do any new projects and most development was made before '87, anyway,” he says.

The TRPA plan, therefore, would serve as a higher framework through guidelines and incentives that encourage mixed-use development in town centers, but gives more leeway for local municipalities around the lake to push forward environmentally-sensitive redevelopment. The goal is to build more dense cores in town centers where commercial, residential, and hotel accommodations share a smaller footprint, while these redeveloped buildings create storm-water infiltration structures that will keep more sediment from reaching the lake. A tandem transportation plan for the region says it will fund better mass transit systems and improve pedestrian and bike throughways in order to reduce private vehicle use.

This sounds a lot like the kind or redevelopment plan, referred to smart growth, that cities around the country are currently chasing: more density, smaller development footprints, better transportation systems.

So what's the problem? I asked Wendy Park, senior associate attorney with Earthjustice. “It does promote density closer to the lake, which means more pavement, which is more runoff, more erosion, more susceptibility of flooding, and it's not really certain the agency is equipped to deal with all the problems that would arise with more concentrated development,” she says.

Cowen counters, however, that redeveloping the town centers through mixed use will allow commercial property owners to collaborate with other developers and share the costs of environmental mitigation, while at the same time creating more walkable, livable town centers. “There is a Safeway in Tahoe City, for example, that is built right on a marsh; there is essentially a river running under the store,” he says. Right now, that property owner is faced with having to install a storm-water infiltration system that it claims is onerously expensive. Meanwhile, sediment from the parking lot continues to cloud the lake. The new plan will allow mixed-use development, in part by removing building height restrictions. What if, Cowen asks, the grocery store becomes part of a multi-story building, with a condo development on an upper story and a combined water system? What if the retail space was also brought closer to the street and made more accessible to mass transit?  At the same time, an incentive system built into the plan will allow development of these types of new residential units through the removal of older residential units that are currently too close to waterways and lack proper water systems.

“That's the kind of redevelopement we will allow,” Cowen says.

Parks is dubious. “It is a rural environment. It's not a place where there is a regular residential population. People from out of town are going to be driving around, so the idea that if you concentrate things but also increase population levels are you really going to be reducing vehicle use around the lake? It's not like L.A. or Chicago where you do have people who live in these dense environments and they commute. So it's questionable whether that model applies,” she says.

“It's been hard for me to get my head around what the Sierra Club is arguing against,” says Cowen. “It  seems like they don’t want Tahoe to get bigger.” But with population growth projected at just 2.5 percent over the next 20 years, he says overdevelopment isn't the root of the problem. The changes to building height restrictions in town cores, however, are also drawing ire. “These commercial centers are one percent of land use [in the basin] and that's what the argument came down to,” he says.

Not all of the region's environmental groups are opposed to the regional plan in its final form. After fighting earlier iterations, the League to Save Lake Tahoe now supports the plan. But Parks says the regional Sierra Club's stance is that the plan will simply fail to put the basin communities in line with the environmental targets on which the agency was founded.

Parks says the Tahoe Regional Sierra Club has not yet decided whether it will introduce litigation to try to stop the plan. A Sierra Club representative I reached out to said he could not immediately comment.

What do you think? Can smart growth be smartly done in a mountain community in a way that substantially reduces that community's environmental impact? Are the standards different, and should they be?

—Mary Catherine O'Connor

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