South Lake Tahoe City Council candidates debate VHRs, cannabis, SnowGlobe
Voters in the city of South Lake Tahoe have nine choices to fill three seats on City Council this election.
With hopes of swaying voters to check their name on the ballot, all nine of the candidates were on hand Thursday for a forum hosted by Tahoe Chamber at Lake Tahoe Community College.
From vacation home rentals to cannabis to SnowGlobe music festival, the candidates debated the most contentious issues facing the city, finding common ground on some issues and sparring over others.
Appearing on the same ballot with the council candidates is Measure T, a citizen-driven initiative that, if approved, would phase out VHRs outside of the tourist core and commercially zoned areas in the city.
Supporters argue the measure is about enforcing zoning laws and keeping defacto hotels out of neighborhoods. Opponents argue the measure is unnecessary and would be devastating to the local economy.
For the six candidates gunning to oust one of the three incumbents in the race, the situation facing the city demonstrates the current council’s failure to find compromise.
“It is disappointing” that the city reached a point where some residents felt Measure T was needed, candidate Devin Middlebrook said.
“I believe that compromise was possible and I am upset that we have had to go through 11 months of fighting in our community,” candidate Tamara Wallace added.
Echoing both Middlebrook and Wallace’s remarks that compromise could still be reached, candidate Cody Bass put forward several suggestions for regulating VHRs, including a possible expansion of the tourist corridor and creating a special use permit process for the mega homes that could never feasibly become longterm rentals.
Former City Councilor Bruce Grego said council’s inability to reach a compromise effectively birthed Measure T.
The measure, while good in theory, could pose serious problems to the city especially concerning the budget, said former Councilor Hal Cole. Additionally, he fears that passage could force VHRs to go underground, which would pose problems from an enforcement standpoint.
If Measure T does pass, the city should look for accelerated development in the areas where VHRs would still be permitted in order for South Lake Tahoe to continue offering desirable lodging.
Cole was tepid in saying he hoped Measure T would fail so council could take another crack at reaching a compromise.
Seeing an opening to separate himself from the other two incumbents, Councilor Austin Sass pointed out he was the only member of council to vote against the current VHR regulations. Sass had pushed for an ordinance that would have implemented distance requirements to prevent clustering of VHRs and reduced the overall number.
The proposal failed when fellow candidate and current Mayor Wendy David dropped her support for the regulations, which ultimately led to the adoption of the current regulations.
Fielding the Measure T question herself, David repeated a point stated by the other candidates: work will continue regardless of whether Measure T passes.
Whoever is on council will have to look for ways to make up for the drop in transient occupancy tax revenue, David said, adding that she previously mentioned the idea of expanding the tourist corridor. If Measure T fails council should consider reducing the cap of 1,400 VHRs outside the tourist corridor.
Incumbent Councilor Tom Davis, who has had to be recused from all VHR votes because of his stake in a vacation rental business, said he hoped a compromise would be reached. Passage of Measure T would effectively put him out of business, he said.
It also would hinder the city’s future rec center, candidate Patrick Jarrett pointed out.
In November 2016, South Lake Tahoe voters passed Measure P, a citywide increase of the transient occupancy tax (TOT) by 2 percent with funds earmarked for a new recreation complex, the Tribune previously reported.
The emergence of Measure T put the plans for the rec center on hold.
Aside from VHRs, cannabis has been one of the most debated issues in the past several years. After countless hours of discussion, City Council adopted an ordinance in August that would allow for a limited number of cannabis licenses in the city.
The ordinance never took effect thanks to a successful referendum initiative spearheaded by one of Bass’ attorneys, James Anthony.
Council must now decide to repeal the ordinance, and presumably replace it with a substantively different ordinance, or put the matter before voters.
If elected to council, Bass would have to recuse himself from cannabis decisions. In explaining the rationale behind the referendum effort, Bass said the ordinance adopted by council effectively created an auction for six available licenses, a process that would favor big cannabis businesses with deep pockets.
Sass and David refuted that point, with Sass saying that the ordinance approved by council awarded points for locals in its scoring process used to determine who would receive the limited number of licenses.
David said she was disappointed that all the hard work of the past year had basically been tabled.
“It was fair, it was well done,” she said of the ordinance.
Noting the inherent difficulty of the referendum process, Grego said it’s passage was proof that council was out of touch with the city’s residents — a point Jarrett repeated.
Davis suggested granting Bass a recreational cannabis license so that the city could move on. The more time that passes the more money is lost by hopeful cannabis businesses, he added.
“These people are paying big money.”
Wallace, who admitted she is not a fan of cannabis, voiced support for Davis’ suggestion.
Middlebrook, who served on a citizens committee convened to help the city research the issue, said he was disappointed City Council chose to change the committee’s recommendations, rather than adopt them as presented.
Cole, who applauded the passage of Prop 64, which legalized cannabis in California, said council needed to act quickly in crafting a new cannabis ordinance.
For most of the candidates, this is a “make or break year” for the annual electronic music festival.
On one hand, the festival represents much needed economic diversity, Middlebrook said. But SnowGlobe does pose nuisance issues for nearby residents, which have forced the community to step up and demand better. This is the year organizers must prove they’ve taken enough steps to truly make it better, he added.
Bass said SnowGlobe needs to have “their feet put to the fire” this year, and he questioned if Lake Tahoe Community College was the best location for the event. Ski resorts would be more prepared to handle large groups of people in the dead of winter.
Overall, the city needs to embrace more festivals and events, and look to locals rather than outside organizers.
Cole, who served on council for 20 years before deciding not to run for reelection in 2016, said he wished the city wouldn’t subsidize the event and recommended possibly shortening the days.
The three incumbents, to varying degrees, mentioned that the city has already addressed both of those suggestions.
They also agreed this year would be crucial for determining whether or not the event goes forward
Grego said he was on council when SnowGlobe was first approved in the city — in the heart of the Great Recession. Since then it has gotten out of control, he said, adding that the city is beholden to voters, not tax revenues. Regardless, it is time for a new venue, he said.
Before council makes a decision, the college needs to be involved in the discussion, Wallace stated.
Jarrett said SnowGlobe has been both good and bad for the city.