Advocates debate bill to pull Nevada out of TRPA
Tribune Capitol Bureau
CARSON CITY, Nev. – Advocates arguing Nevada should leave the Tahoe Regional Planning agency told lawmakers Friday the agency has gone far beyond what it was originally designed to do, interfering in even the smallest decisions a home or business owner might make on his property.
But environmental groups opposed Senate Bill 271 by Sen. John Lee, D-Las Vegas, saying without a bi-state organization to control development there, the lake would rapidly deteriorate.
TRPA Executive Director Joanne Marchetta told the Senate Government Affairs that leaves her and the agency itself caught between “two strongly held but very different beliefs.”
TRPA was created by California, Nevada and the U.S. Congress in the late 1960s to protect and preserve Tahoe as a national resource. Former state Sen. Coe Swobe, R-Reno, who was key to the agency’s creation, said it was envisioned as a regional planning agency.
“Forty years ago when the compact was formed, it was formed to create uniform, minimum standards for preserving Lake Tahoe,” he said. “Polluted waters do not respect state and county lines. Polluted air does not respect state or county lines. Forest fires do not respect state or county lines.”
But, he said, governors Paul Laxalt of Nevada and Ronald Reagan of California “would not be too happy with the way things are right now.”
Lee and Sen. James Settelmeyer, R-Gardnerville, complained that, using the system that requires a majority of members from both states to approve any projects or permits, California members have ritually blocked every proposal they can in the basin.
Several basin residents testified about the delays, expense and interference by TRPA regulators in allowing even health-safety projects on private property.
“You rake up the (pine) needles around your house for fire protection and you’re told you have to put them back,” said David Fabrizio of South Lake Tahoe. “You’ve got trees that are dead in your yard and you’re told you can’t cut them down.”
As a result, he said his house was one of those burned in the Angora fire.
Gay Johnston said she needed to do health and safety repairs to her house including to the sewer system but that TRPA refused to issue the permits for some five years, constantly challenging and demanding changes in the plan. At one point, she said the agency suggested a boardwalk along their deck but when they included it in the plan, denied it. By the time they got their permits, she said they had spent more than $110,000 – more than the repair work cost.
Former Cal-Neva Lodge owner Charles Bluth said he spent years trying to get approval for an expansion and rehabilitation of that property.
“After five years, I basically gave up and sold the property,” he said.
Bruce Grego, a South Lake Tahoe councilman, said withdrawing from the bi-state compact “is the only way the people of the basin can send a message to the state of California and League to save Lake Tahoe and all the organizations that have dominated the basin for 40 years.
“I hope we can find ways to allow families to add an extra bedroom to their home or a deck or a hot house for the cost of improvements and no more, without fear and without paying tribute to TRPA,” he said.
But environmental advocates including Margaret Eadington, representing several groups involved at the lake including the Sierra Club, said withdrawal from TRPA “would constitute a serious setback to efforts to protect and restore the unique resources of Lake Tahoe.”
Rochelle Nason, director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe, said the bi-state TRPA is vital to protecting the lake. Pulling out, she said, would jeopardize a bill containing $415 million in federal funding for environmental work at the lake now before Congress.
She said her group is willing to work with TRPA, homeowners and businesses to set consistent standards that all sides could follow.
Conceding that the agency needs some changes, Nason urged lawmakers, “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”
“Withdrawal from the compact would make it in effect impossible to keep Tahoe blue,” she said.
But Lee, chairman of the committee, charged that Nason wasn’t trying to work with the other side.
“My side of the story is you’re the biggest problem,” he said. “You’re controlling the California side. For you to sit here and say you’re trying to get along is not a true statement.”
Marchetta and Swobe, who more recently served on the TRPA Governing Board, also made references to the League’s numerous lawsuits and continual threats to sue if they didn’t get their way. She told the committee that, unfortunately, she anticipates the agency spending about a million dollars in the next couple of years to defend against litigation.
“Litigation cripples any progress the board has made toward finding solutions,” she said.
Leo Drozdoff, head of Nevada’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said there would be immediate negative consequences to withdrawal. He said Gov. Brian Sandoval favors beginning negotiations with California Gov. Jerry Brown on amendments to cure some of TRPA’s problems.
One suggestion he brought to the table is returning control over small residential matters to the local governments at the lake.
Swobe said he thinks returning control over residential permitting to local officials is “a great idea.” He said that was the original idea when TRPA was created but that, “a lot of times, the counties didn’t have guts enough to do something so they pushed it back on the TRPA.”
Marchetta said as director, she agrees with that concept because times have changed.
“Our historical role was to stop rampant overdevelopment,” she said. “The needs of today are very different. We must transition to managing more regional issues.”
She said she has been working for her two years as director on a strategy, “that redefines the intent of the agency from lake police to regional planner.”
She said the agency now has a thorough understanding of the problem of water quality – fine sediment runoff and she intends to focus its efforts on that work.
“We can reclaim the famed clarity,” she said. “We can reduce the 20 percent unemployment not by building but by rebuilding.”
She said now isn’t the time to pull out because a bi-state approach is vital to saving the lake. Instead, she called for lawmakers from both states and the governors of both states to get together and try work out amendments to the compact to make TRPA work for all parties and for the protection of the lake.
Settelmeyer said he believes the compact needs to be changed completely.
“I think the existing compact has failed,” he said calling for TRPA to “get out of the business of residential permitting.
“Focus on those areas where you can make the greatest environmental gains,” he said.
Lee said the testimony gave the committee a thorough briefing on the issues involved. He said another hearing on the contents of SB271 itself would be necessary before he would seek action on the measure.
Agreeing that bi-state cooperation is necessary at Tahoe, he said, “My goal is to see that we keep a compact of sorts.”