Funding, boat inspections at risk if bill passes
Conflict between California and Nevada over the Lake Tahoe Basin is nothing new. But nearly a half century of fighting over the lake has been formalized in a bill making its way through the Nevada Legislature.
Sen. John Lee, D.-North Las Vegas and Sen. James Settelmeyer, R-Gardnerville introduced Senate Bill 271 in March following frustrations over California’s influence on Nevada decision-making via the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s Governing Board.
The bill would remove the state from the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Compact.
But what, exactly, would happen if the bill passes?
“There are a lot of questions, basically,” said TRPA spokesman Jeff Cowen on Wednesday.
One of the biggest questions surrounding the bill is how land use decisions would be made on the Nevada side of the Lake Tahoe Basin without a TRPA.
The bill places development decisions in the hands of an expanded Nevada Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which is currently limited to administering the TRPA Compact in regard to gaming.
Money slated for TRPA would be used to staff and operate the NTRPA, “which would have to pretty quickly come up with its own ordinances for land use,” Cowen said.
The bill calls for the elimination of land coverage restrictions that have been a major focus of TRPA’s attempts to reverse Lake Tahoe’s clarity decline.
The Division of State Lands of the State Department of Conservation and Natural Resources would “within the limits of available money, establish a program to mitigate the environmentally detrimental effects of land coverage in the Lake Tahoe Basin” under the bill.
But the change would not be a wholesale, said Mike Young, chair of the Nevada Homeownership Alliance, which is advocating the passage of the bill.
The NTRPA would likely use TRPA’s regulations as a blueprint for its ordinances, while allowing Nevada to “control its own destiny,” Young said.
“It’s not like rewriting the whole book on how we’re going to protect Lake Tahoe,” Young said.
But giving control of land use decisions to the NTRPA could lead to a time-consuming legal quagmire, according to several people who testified before the Senate Government Affairs Committee earlier this month. The committee sent the bill to the full Nevada Legislature on Monday.
In a letter entered into the record at the meeting, Bob Mecay, president of The Tahoe Beach Club project at Stateline, said he was concerned NTRPA expansion will hamper development just as the economy is starting to turn around.
“I’m worried that starting a new agency hastily is inevitably going to create delays,” Mecay said. “Just getting a new plan in place, finding a location, hiring personnel, educating a new staff and creating and funding a budget is a daunting task. Projects like ours are going to again be delayed just when we are ready to go. That, for us, may not be affordable.”
While Mecay assumed no litigation in his letter, Leo Drozdoff, director of the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said lawsuits are inevitable if Senate Bill 271 passes and could cause a sudden halt to development at the lake.
“There will still be a wide range of opinions on the regional plan components and legal challenges will occur,” Drozdoff said. “The result is that withdrawal from the Compact could lead to the unintended consequence of a moratorium for an indeterminate amount of time while a new plan is adopted. This would have significant negative consequences to Nevada’s economy.”
Another immediate effect of the bill’s passage would be a lack of boat inspections for aquatic invasive species during the summer of 2011, Cowen said.
Boat inspections have been in place at Lake Tahoe since 2008 to prevent additional nuisance species from reaching Lake Tahoe, especially quagga and zebra mussels. The mollusks have wreaked havoc on midwestern waterways and have to spread to the west.
TRPA acts as a fiscal agent for the program, which is funded largely by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Cowen said.
Nevada is considering a bill to hold boat inspections statewide, but the bill to remove Nevada from the TRPA does not include plans for boat inspections.
The bill’s sponsors, Lee and Settelmeyer, did not return requests for comment Thursday.
Another major concern brought up during Nevada committee hearing earlier this month is how removal of Nevada from the TRPA could threaten millions of dollars in federal funding distributed in the basin each year.
Ten million dollars in federal grants provided through 1997’s Lake Tahoe Restoration Act will be forfeited if Nevada is severed from the compact, said League to Save Lake Tahoe Executive Director Rochelle Nason.
How the bill could impact the second coming of the act, which has been introduced to the U.S. Senate and would provide an additional $415 million in federal funds for the Lake Tahoe Environmental Improvement Program, is also unclear, Nason said.
“If the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency ceases to exist, its EIP will cease to exist, as will the Federal obligation under the EIP,” Nason said. “Therefore, no project will qualify for these payments under existing federal law. This is a significant and immediate fiscal impact to local government, or to the State of Nevada as a whole should it undertake to offset losses sustained by the Lake Tahoe environment resulting from its withdrawal from the Compact.”
Public transportation at the lake would also be dramatically affected if the bill is successful, said Carl Hasty, district manager of the Tahoe Transportation District and a former deputy director of the TRPA.
Between $5 and $6 million in annual federal public transportation would go away if SB 271 passes, said Hasty, who added that $475 million in transportation project funding programmed for the next five years would also be in jeopardy.
The bill would also fragment regional organizations in charge of public transportation. If the bill passes, public transportation in the Lake Tahoe Basin would move from being managed by two agencies to being managed by more than a dozen, Hasty said.
Eleven local and state agencies, two U.S. Department of Transportation agencies under four division offices and two regions of the U.S. Forest Service would be involved in management of public transportation at the lake, Hasty said.
The road ahead
Several previous attempts to pull Nevada out of the TRPA have been unsuccessful.
It’s unclear what kind of support SB 271 will have moving forward. Removing Nevada from the TRPA would need approval by the Nevada Senate, Assembly and Gov. Brian Sandoval to become a reality.
And some say it is too early to tell what the true effects of the bill’s passage would be.
Jan Brisco, executive director of the Tahoe Lakefront Owners’ Association, said bills typically get amended as they go through the political process.
“It’s too early to predict what it might do to any project applicants or planning process,” Brisco said.
The association is remaining neutral on the bill, Brisco added.
But knowing what the bill will do is critical before it can be passed, said Gary Midkiff, a planning and permitting consultant who is also a former deputy director of the TRPA, in his statement to the Government Affairs Committee.
He cautioned against a hasty removal.
“If TRPA can’t come to the table as a reasonable partner then maybe it is time for NV to give up on this deal and go it alone but let’s don’t leave the people of NV of the Lake in political limbo by pulling out of the TRPA with no reasonable measures in place to protect them and the Tahoe Basin.”