TRPA, local governments, other groups defend regional plan in court
December 2, 2013
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Julie Regan.
Tahoe Regional Planning Agency is asking a federal judge to uphold its Regional Plan Update, the target of a lawsuit by two groups alleging that it fails to protect Lake Tahoe's sensitive environment.
In a lengthy brief filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, TRPA challenges the assertions by Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore and argues their claims are "startlingly myopic," mischaracterizations or disagreements over a handful of policies that will, in fact, protect and improve the lake's environment.
"We're really confident we have the support of other environmental organizations, the support of the community for this new strategy, and we're hopeful the court will agree," said TRPA external affairs chief Julie Regan.
Adopted in December 2012 and challenged in court by Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore in February, the Regional Plan Update lets local jurisdictions adopt area plans for their urban centers and assume more responsibility for environmental restoration and project permitting.
The updated plan also offers incentives such as relaxed lot coverage, building height and density rules, enhanced development transfer rights and "bonus units" for eligible projects that redevelop targeted urban areas and restore wetlands, meadows and other sensitive areas around the lake.
"We see a benefit of restoring sensitive land and transferring that development to town centers," Regan said.
The Sierra Club argues the strategy "fails to account for the drastic increase in new, concentrated development that the (Regional Plan Update) allows above current levels and the harmful impacts of that increased development."
In a recent op-ed in the Tribune, Michael Brune, director of the Sierra Club, and Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, said the organization is united at the local, state and national level in believing that the plan needs to go back to the drawing board.
"In a nutshell, the plan encourages more development without ensuring that the development won't create more air pollution, more runoff into the lake and more algal and other contamination that damages the lake's clarity and quality," they wrote.
Other groups are getting involved in the case. South Lake Tahoe, Carson City and El Dorado, Placer, Douglas and Washoe counties together filed a brief supporting the Regional Plan Update Wednesday.
Lake Tahoe Community College, South Shore Chamber of Commerce, North Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce, Sierra Nevada Association of Realtors, Incline Village Board of Realtors, Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, Tahoe Douglas Visitors Authority, South Tahoe Alliance of Resorts and Barton Health also filed a brief supporting the plan.
TRPA's focus on environmental redevelopment is widely supported by the community and by scientific research, the latter groups argue in their court filing. They call the Sierra Club's claim that it puts Lake Tahoe at risk of uncontrolled growth "unfounded" and "much ado about nothing."
The groups argue the approach and its incentives are needed for the environmental redevelopment of older, nonconforming developments built around the lake before strict environmental standards were put in place with the 1987 regional plan, adding that those developments are responsible for much of the storm water and fine sediment that reaches the lake and clouds its famously clear waters.
In the brief, the groups describe a grim "new normal for Tahoe" and argue the environmental redevelopment targeted by TRPA is also needed to revitalize an ailing local economy.
The gaming industry has seen its revenues decline by 40 percent since 1987 and shed more than 7,000 jobs since 1990 as legalized gambling spread around the country. Once one of the country's top three gaming destinations, "visitors to the region now drive by newer, bigger and better casinos enroute to Lake Tahoe," the groups argue.
Hotel occupancy rates on the South Shore decreased 30 percent from 2001 to 2011 and many of its older strip motels fail to live up to modern visitor expectations and serve instead as substandard affordable housing for local residents priced out of the housing market. Retail sales, population and school enrollment also have declined significantly as private reinvestment faltered, the groups state in their brief.
"No one is clamoring for more development. Rather, environmental redevelopment of the basin's built environment is necessary to accelerate achievement of TRPA's (environmental) thresholds, improve the basin's economy and restore the basin's communities," the groups state.
The groups argue the Regional Plan Update now before the court represents nearly a decade of planning that produced unprecedented collaboration and "across-the-board buy-in."
"It is fair to say if this effort is not good enough, the bar is too high — the legal requirements for plan approval are beyond collective reach."