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Economy and environment a tough blend

by Sally J. Taylor

The momentum is building to change a motel zoning policy that has locked some motels into a downward spiral.

For two to three years, business, city and environmental officials have met to discussed ways to satisfy both environmental policy and economic necessity.

All agree many motels need to be retired and others remodeled, but for now, motel owners have limited options.

“We have to present a climate in which it’s doable,” said real estate agent Pembroke Gochnauer who has been worked for 10 years to find options for struggling motel owners.

The financial engine for conversions, Gochnauer said, is the sale of motel units, called tourist accommodation units, for projects in the redevelopment area.

The snag is that the property cannot be sold as, or converted to commercial square footage because of a Tahoe Regional Planning Agency policy enacted 12 years ago in a court mandated compromise plan.

“All types of new development are limited or capped,” Pam Drum, TRPA spokeswoman, said. “The TRPA may not encourage an infusion of use that’s not already there. For some uses we encourage elimination.

“But, in five to 10 years, if there is an increased demand for accommodations, it’s gone. TRPA is not inclined to pull new tourism accommodation units out of the air. There’s a cap or ceiling on both tourist accommodations and commercial square footage.”

The TRPA policy curbed the run-away development common in the 1970s. It also laid the foundation for new problems.

“It’s obvious to me, when the different zone was created, it was for the purpose of controlling (the use),” Gochnauer said. “There wasn’t any vision of the economic impact.”

With the recent decline in the South Lake Tahoe lodging industry, the impact has become obvious. Deteriorating motels dot the main road through town and motel occupancies in the city barely climb above an average 60 percent during the best month of the year. Many motel occupancies rarely crawl above 40 percent.

“People don’t build motels expecting less than 75 percent occupancy,” Gochnauer said. “If they’re making half that, by definition, they are failing.”

Through years of discussions obstacles are being surmounted.

“It looks like we’ve found some common ground to keep (conversions) limited,” said Gabby Barrett, manager of long-range planning at the TRPA.

Among the questions finding answers is, under what circumstances can conversions be made?

For TRPA officials, the conversion must be to an allowable use, not to something that is capped or inappropriate for the location. And the change must make substantial environmental improvements to the site.

Motels demolished for open space, as is planned for the Jack Pot Inn and Serra Lodge near Stateline, make obvious improvements to the environment and the aesthetics.

Can a motel be remodeled into business offices, and, if so, what environmental improvements would be required?

Everything would have to brought up to current environmental standards, Barrett said. Nothing could be grandfathered in.

Besides the sale of motel units, the sale of commercial square footage, could provide financial incentives for owners of struggling motels to sell.

Then, the question is, how many square feet of commercial floor area does one motel equal?

Barrett is working on a formula.

More than just asking questions, the negotiators are finding answers. Proposals could go before the TRPA advisory board within the next couple months.

“We as a community,” Gochnauer said, “not just the chamber, the lodging, the Board of Realtors, … as a whole community, we need to have viable and prosperous businesses lining the highway that can afford to comply with environmental and water enhancement goals.”

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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