The recent debate over South Lake Tahoe’s fireworks displays was interesting because it’s another reminder of the almighty power of lawsuits and the threat of legal action.
As you’ve likely read, Zephyr Cove residents Joseph and Joan Truxler filed a federal suit against the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority and Pyro Spectaculars North, alleging their July 4 and Labor Day fireworks displays violate the Clean Water Act.
The two sides reached a settlement agreement Monday, allowing the shows to continue with increased oversight of cleanup of debris.
Crisis averted, right? Perhaps, but let’s not forget what all was at play here, including the environmental precedent-setting — and economic-crippling — ramifications that could have come from it.
If the Truxlers had won all the suit asked for, the LTVA would have had to pay as much as $75 million in fines — by way of a whopping $37,500 for every mortar tube used the last five years — and it would have had to acquire a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit for future shows, something that reportedly had never before been required in America.
It was too much for the LTVA board, which decided that if a settlement was not reached by Thursday of this week, it would cancel all future fireworks shows.
The issue and decision stirred several emotions among business owners, politicians and residents, many who harshly criticized the Truxlers, while others stressed that if the shows were canceled, then South Lake Tahoe — and perhaps the entire region, through a trickle-down effect — would lose millions in summer tourism revenue.
Thankfully, for the sake of Lake Tahoe’s economy, the lawsuit was settled, and the shows will go on. Regardless of your stance on the litigation, I think we can all agree that, after two consecutive dry winters, canceling one of the region’s most popular and well-attended summer events would not bode well for things here.
But did that potential negative impact mean the Truxlers were “wrong” to file their suit in the first place? Therein lies the dilemma: Love it or hate it, people have the right to sue, and when it comes to Tahoe, lawsuits and legal threats over the years have clearly changed how development is proposed and how government agencies do business.
Just look at all that happened with the Truxlers’ suit — an emergency meeting was held, politicians from both states took time away from other issues to offer their services to help clean up fireworks debris and plead for a settlement, and hundreds, if not thousands, of people stopped what they were doing to pay attention to the issue and offer an opinion.
In the end, the settlement agreement will likely accomplish a new standard on how all our region’s agencies and business associations carry out and clean up after fireworks shows. If it’s all in the name of bettering Lake Tahoe’s environment, then I’m fine with that.
But the lawsuit did more than that. How?
For years, an inside joke guffawed that the real name for the League to Save Lake Tahoe should be the “League to Sue Lake Tahoe.” While the League’s leadership has changed in recent years, and many would argue that title doesn’t apply to them anymore, the concept of challenging anything for the sake of challenging it is still commonplace here.
From the lawsuit against TRPA’s Regional Plan, to past suits against shorezone ordinances and the Homewood redevelopment, to heavy criticism of the Boulder Bay or Squaw Valley projects, the list goes on — there are people and groups who are fiercely protective of the environment at Lake Tahoe, and many have plenty of energy and money to challenge ideas some say will improve the region.
Oftentimes, a suit is not won — or, it’s settled — but concessions almost always are made by way of a smaller project proposal, agreements to stiffer checks and balances, or through other means, sometimes financial.
In pretty much the same way, the Truxlers’ suit has done just that.
So in the end, as lovely a tradition as Fourth of July fireworks have become in this country, it’s also fair to say — love it or hate it — that these days, about the only thing more American than apple pie is exercising one’s right to sue.
Kevin MacMillan is managing editor of the Sierra Sun and North Lake Tahoe Bonanza newspapers; he may be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Kevin1MacMillan.