Fed up with agency fees
July 3, 2009
To residents, it’s known as the “Tahoe Tax,” a surcharge on seemingly every purchase – from gasoline to groceries – because of the unique locale where they are bought.
But when it comes to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the tax goes by a different name. The planning agency’s compact doesn’t allow for the collection of taxes, but does grant the agency the right to collect project review fees to reimburse its expenses, and mitigation fees to alleviate the detrimental effects of development on the lake.
The fees are just part of doing business in such breath-taking natural surroundings, according to one TRPA official.
But to some in the Lake Tahoe Basin, the fees are a prime example of big government run amok.
Although it has taken Jim Morris, the president of Lake Tahoe Accommodations in South Lake Tahoe, eight years to secure the building allocation needed to build a 2,155-square-foot home on Venice Drive in the Tahoe Keys, it’s the fees that anger the Carson Valley resident the most. The house is being constructed as a rental property that will generate funds for the pension plan for the more than 30 employees of Lake Tahoe Accommodations, Morris says.
In addition to $18,920.20 for a sewer permit, the permit fees associated with the construction on the home total $23,180.68. More than two-thirds of the $23,000 in fees are levied by the TRPA.
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“I was immediately taken aback by the unbelievable statement of fees, etc. for a single family residential building permit,” Morris said in a letter to the TRPA in March. “The absurdity of the charges seems to be indicative of how far unchecked government has come.”
Despite the thousands of dollars in fees, it was $500 that sent Morris through the roof.
In September, the TRPA told Morris the base allowable land coverage of the parcel he intended to build on was 7 percent, effectively preventing a house from being built on the lot that’s between two existing homes.
Morris protested the decision to the TRPA, which then ruled – after requiring a $500 application fee – that the amount of allowable base coverage was 30 percent because the parcel is considered a “man-modified” parcel under agency rules.
The developer is galled at the $500 charge, saying it should be the responsibility of the agency to be able to accurately interpret its own rules.
“I don’t know how many people they screwed with this deal,” Morris said.
To Morris, the fees are a symptom of an agency that places undue burden on individual families rather than concentrating on large public projects that could most benefit Lake Tahoe.
Erosion control measures along the basin’s road network would be more effective toward improving the health of the lake than regulating the coverage created by individual homeowners, Morris contends.
“They could do some good, but them concentrating on the single-family residents is a joke,” Morris said.
Such large-scale projects are under way, but limitations on land coverage and requiring homeowners to install erosion control measures on their property are part of a “holistic” approach to improving Lake Tahoe’s environmental quality, something that won’t happen for free, said TRPA spokesman Dennis Oliver.
Just as it’s every homeowner’s responsibility to take steps to prevent wildfire in the basin, it’s also their responsibility to help protect the lake, Oliver said. Owning a home at Lake Tahoe requires owners to be stewards of the land rather than just occupants, Oliver said.
“What we’re trying to do is perfect the art of people being able to live in a place like Tahoe and do so environmentally capably,” Oliver said.
Fees are a necessary part of protecting the lake and are reviewed annually to ensure they are appropriate, Oliver said. Project application fees pay for the planning staff needed to review development projects in the basin, Oliver said. Mitigation fees don’t fund TRPA operations and are held by the agency to fund future projects designed to meet certain environmental goals, Oliver said.
“It’s all going back into the product,” Oliver said. “If you want to see if it’s working, just look around, Lake Tahoe is a pretty nice place.”
Even though Morris says he would prefer that the TRPA focus on roadway improvements rather than individual homeowners, he questions the effectiveness of projects paid for by mitigation fees, using as an example an erosion control project behind Tahoe Valley Elementary School that appears in disrepair.
The maintenance of mitigation projects is an under-funded aspect of protecting Lake Tahoe, Oliver said, noting such maintenance is not the responsibility of the TRPA, but the responsibility of the owner of the project.
A larger share, $142 million, of the next environmental improvement program – a $2.4 billion public-private partnership to fund projects that improve Lake Tahoe’s environment – is allocated for just such maintenance, Oliver said. Where that money will come from isn’t known, but is expected to include all levels of government and the private sector, Oliver said.
Still, Morris has vowed to keep up the fight against an agency he feels has overstepped its bounds, and he isn’t alone.
In a December lawsuit challenging TRPA’s recently passed ordinance amendments to regulate development near Lake Tahoe’s shoreline, the Tahoe Lakefront Owners’ Association contends a $100,000 public-access mitigation fee for new pier construction at Lake Tahoe is arbitrary and illegal.
“TRPA attempts to justify that high fee by referring to efforts to increase public access to the lake shore. However there is no assessment of what impact, if any, a new pier might have on public access,” according to the suit.
The fee was set at $100,000 because it represents the cost to remove a pier and restore the area it was built on, Oliver said. The money generated from the fee will go to pay for future projects providing public access to Lake Tahoe’s shoreline, Oliver said.
But, in the eyes of the owners association, the fee is representative of an agency that has gone too far.
“Absent some nexus between the harm and the remedy, the amendments’ $100,000 fee is just a tax,” according to the suit. “The compact does not give TRPA the right to impose taxes.”
Tahoe Regional Planning Agency fees associated with construction of a 2,155-square-foot home in the Tahoe Keys:
$100 – Fee for monitoring water-quality impacts and permit conformance.
$3,258.40 – Air quality mitigation fee for new residences. The fee is $325.84 per daily vehicle trip. Single-family dwellings create 10 daily vehicle trips, according to the International Traffic Engineering Manual.
$88 – Information technology surcharge for all applications. Serves as cost recovery mechanism and funds equipment and systems upgrades.
$365 – Off-site coverage mitigation to pay for water-quality issues resulting from the portion of the driveway apron that connects to the street.
$263.40 – City of South Lake Tahoe cost recovery for TRPA review. Agencies that partner with TRPA add 10 percent to TRPA application filing fees to recover cost of administrating a memorandum of understanding with the TRPA.
$2,370.60 – TRPA cost recovery for application review is $1.10 per square foot on new residential buildings. The city keeps this to pay for staff time reviewing the project. Includes all administration costs for permit review and site visits.
$76 – TRPA cost recovery for administration of securities, finance team, etc.
$2,901.60 – TRPA water-quality mitigation fund contribution based on square feet of impervious surfaces created. The current fee is $1.86 per square foot. Mitigation funds are a pass-through and go to the jurisdiction where a project is developed to fund water-quality improvement projects to offset the impact of development as a whole. TRPA collects no administration fees for water-quality mitigation funds and holds them in an account to accrue interest until the jurisdiction is ready to implement a project.
$3,250 – Special water-quality mitigation for Tahoe Keys properties. Fee is a set amount per new home in the Keys and is not used often since there are few vacant parcels left.
Source: Tahoe Regional Planning Agency