Changes on the horizon for TRPA |

Changes on the horizon for TRPA

There are some visible changes going on at Lake Tahoe’s bistate regulatory authority – and they’re not just a 2,400-foot expansion of offices, the new patrol boat on the water or the pair of lawsuits the agency recently filed.

More money is coming to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. There are new staff members and new equipment. The agency is now set up, as Executive Director Jim Baetge says, to put a lot of great things into motion for Tahoe.

“Everything really is in order. I think this is a great time where, finally, you can truly perform,” he said. “I won’t go back farther than 1994, because I wasn’t here, but in 1994 we constantly said, ‘When can we do this? When can we do that?’ I think now we can do those things.”

Baetge said as long as the commitments made by California, Nevada, the federal government and the local sector come through, the agency can be successful in implementing the programs needed to preserve Tahoe, which is losing its clarity at a rate of more than a foot a year.

“I’ll bet there isn’t a place in the country that has as good a program set into motion to be successful as we do now,” he said. “If all the players step up to their responsibilities, I think we have an extremely good chance of success in the Tahoe Basin.”

TRPA was created in 1969 when the legislatures of both states passed the Tahoe Regional Planning Compact, signed into law by former governors Ronald Reagan of California and Paul Laxalt of Nevada. The lake’s watershed is in two states and five counties, and TRPA was created to provide consistent environmental standards for the 501-square-mile watershed.

Since the agency’s inception, TRPA has gone through various revisions, but it has always been primarily focused on being a regulatory body: controlling development and enforcing its rules.

That emphasis has shifted in recent years. TRPA has nine thresholds – water quality, air quality, soil conservation, vegetation, fish habitat, wildlife habitat, noise, scenic resources and recreation – it is trying to achieve in order to improve the environmental quality of the region. Officials within the last few years have realized that achieving those standards cannot be done with establishing and enforcing regulations alone.

Projects designed to specifically help the environment were needed. Thus came the Environmental Improvement Program. The EIP, adopted by the agency’s governing board last year, identified $908 million worth of projects that needed to be completed in order for TRPA to achieve its thresholds. And it identified how much local, state and federal governments should be responsible for paying.

A draft of the EIP was reviewed at the 1997 Lake Tahoe Presidential Forum. The EIP brought focus to what needed to be done; the forum brought attention to it.

In addition to helping state and local agencies, the attention has helped TRPA. Its annual budget – of which two-thirds come from California, a third from Nevada – was more than half a million dollars more this fiscal year over last year. The agency was facing 10-percent cutbacks each year in the early 1990s.

Another source of funding is the Tahoe Metropolitan Planning Organization. With Tahoe being designated a Metropolitan Planning Organization earlier this year, TRPA’s transportation effort now has another source of funding, more staff members and more resources.

Since the beginning of the fiscal year in July, TRPA has expanded its offices and reorganized them. The agency now occupies all of the offices in its building in Round Hill. The agency has a new, larger conference room. The reception area is larger and, with a new computer customer information system, more user friendly. An EIP team and a transportation team – both only recently created – along with TRPA’s regulatory staff have their own designated areas within those offices.

The expansion has made that possible as well as making enough room for TRPA’s increasingly larger staff. The agency is on its way to having about 65 employees, opposed to 51 about a year ago.

In addition to those for the EIP and transportation departments, an assistant public affairs coordinator, wildlife biologist, recreation planner and second attorney are among the new positions created.

Within the last month, TRPA has filed two new lawsuits against alleged violators of its ordinances, one for not complying with its ban on two-stroke engines and another for illegally chopping down trees. This illustrates, Baetge says, how the better-staffed legal division strengthens the agency’s ability to enforce its rules.

Four seasonal employees were hired over the summer to use TRPA’s new patrol boat to enforce its 600-foot no-wake zone and new ban on certain type of motorized watercraft. They wrote 525 written warnings during the summer. It’s the first time the agency, whose charge is to protect Tahoe, has had a presence on the 12-mile-wide, 22-mile-long lake.

TRPA and TMPO staff aren’t the only ones housed at the Round Hill offices, either. Because of a commitment from the 1997 forum, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official works there in conjunction with TRPA. As part of an agreement with Douglas County, a planner from that jurisdiction works at TRPA’s office to help expedite projects. More agreements such as those may be possible in the future.

Another change is the agency’s permit integration program, which is responsible for the new computer – the TRPA Customer Information System – sitting in TRPA’s lobby. It is a prototype the agency hopes later to have in all of the Tahoe Basin’s building departments. That should happen by early next year, and shortly after that residents may be able to access its programs on their own computers via the World Wide Web. It will allow people to track their projects, telling them if it’s been approved, if a planner has been assigned to it or if anyone has even visited the property. Copies of TRPA’s codes and regulations will be accessible; the latest news about TRPA will be on there; a copy of the agency’s newsletter will be available.

“If the public wants to learn more about what’s going on with TRPA, I think it’s a lot easier now,” Baetge said.

“I think (what TRPA is doing) is unique. I don’t think you’ll find a similar program anywhere else. This is really cutting edge,” Baetge added. “Recently, over the last five years, we’ve gone through some major, major revisions on how we do business. I think it’s well recognized.

“High tech. Easy access. One permit, erasing the lines between local governments and us as much as possible. It’s all aimed at achieving our environmental thresholds.”

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