Research building debate gets emotional | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Research building debate gets emotional

Gregory Crofton, Tahoe Daily Tribune

TAHOE CITY — It’s ironic but true. The group that works to produce the science used to save Lake Tahoe is having just as difficult a time as any other group that wants to build at Lake Tahoe Basin.

UC Davis’ Tahoe Research Group presented its plans to build an environmental research lab just outside Tahoe City at a planning meeting on Wednesday.

Alice Baldrica, who chaired the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency meeting, begged people in attendance to take advantage of a public hearing to discuss the project, which will likely be built at one of two sites off Lake Forest Drive.

The begging worked.

“I go by that corner and get upset,” said Melody Monk, in tears as she spoke to an advisory commission of the TRPA. “Of all the places at the lake, couldn’t you find another place?

“It seems to me like it could be more well hidden. Living at Lake Forest and being aware of the flood zone, it really upsets me. Couldn’t we find another site that’s less sensitive?”

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Looking at 2 sites

UC Davis has been looking for a place to build since 1999 and has examined a number of other sites. In 2000, it suggested an existing campground on Lake Forest Road, one of the two sites now being considered.

The League to Save Lake Tahoe asked UC Davis staff to find an alternative site because the campground sits next to a stream. In 2001, staff at the university discovered a 5-acre chunk of land just down the road from the campground. It is managed by California State Parks and now it is the site that UC Davis would prefer to build on because it’s less sensitive than the campground, said Sid England, director of environmental planning at UC Davis.

Mary Harrington, a Tahoe City resident, said she didn’t mind its being built at either site because the facility is vital to the health of Lake Tahoe.

“I’m afraid it’s going to become not an environmental issue, but a political issue,” Harrington said. “It’s being looked at as a big building, not really necessary. But it would be of tremendous value to Lake Tahoe.”

Politics is part of equation

Politics entered into the process last summer when Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City, came out against using the state parks land for the project.

The land, he has said, was purchased through a public bond act meant to preserve the space for recreation and public access to the lake.

UC Davis has offered office space to state parks in exchange for use of the land it manages. If UC Davis were to build on the land, an existing trail used by residents to get to the lake would be moved, but it would remain open.

“Even with the path, it still takes away, somewhat, the experience of enjoying the outdoors,” said Brian O’Neel, Leslie’s spokesman.

Leslie is a member of the Tahoe Christian Center, which is accessed by a road that also leads to the state parks land.

Leslie is not against the project because it is near his church, according to O’Neel, but because of the recreation issue and because residents who live in the area are against it.

Neil Eskind, an attorney at Tahoe City, said he represents about 150 people who live near the state parks land.

“That land was purchased with money from a state bond act voted on and approved by the people, the Recreation Land Bond Act of 1974,” Eskind said. “The people I represent are not of the position they want to kill the project … but building an office building on land purchased by the state under restricted use is a fraud on the people of California.”

Tahoe Research Group

Today the Tahoe Research Group works out of the old Fish Hatchery, which dates back to the 1920s. Its two boats are parked more than a mile from the facility. Researchers have to cart lake water they examine back to their lab in 5-gallon buckets.

Charles Goldman, who started the research group, likes to compare Davis’ operations at the hatchery as being “world class research in a Third World facility.”

“It would be much more efficient in a place we didn’t have to spend much time patching the building together,” said Robert Richards, who has been working for the Tahoe Research Group at the lake since the 1970s.

The lab, wherever it goes, will have an intake pipe that draws water from the lake. The new facilities will expand the research at the lake from water ecology to include toxicity studies, forest health, soil science and air quality.

It is a critical time to provide science based on Lake Tahoe, said Sylvia Wright, spokeswoman for UC Davis. She said the TRPA, the U.S. Forest Service and the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board are all about to embark on crucial long-term planning for their agencies.

“People are desperate for data,” Wright said. “That’s why this lab is so important.”

UC Davis estimated the project, which will include a restoration of the Fish Hatchery so it can be used as an environmental education center, will cost $13.5 million. It took the university about four years to raise the money from private donations.

An environmental analysis report on the campground site and the state parks site can be read at http://www.ormp.ucdavis.edu/environreview. Comments can be e-mailed to environreview@ucdavis.edu or mailed to John A. Meyer, Vice Chancellor — Resource Management and Planning, University of California, One Shields Ave., 376 Mrak Hall, Davis, CA 95616. Comments are due on March 3 by 5 p.m.

UC Davis is also working on an environmental impact statement for both sites. It should be available for public comment sometime this spring.

— Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at gcrofton@tahoedailytribune.com

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