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GUEST COLUMN: Democracy in Tahoe?

The Nevada state Senate is considering a bill to take back sovereignty over the land-use decisions on the Nevada side of the lake. It shouldn’t be a surprise.

For more than 40 years, both Nevada and California have surrendered their authority over land use to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. The TRPA was supposed to be just that – a planning agency. Two true conservative governors, Paul Laxalt and Ronald Reagan, recognized the need to plan together to keep the lake pristine. However, those two champions of the rights of property owners and smaller government certainly didn’t foresee the planning agency becoming a regional government.

From the beginning of the agency, some were concerned that the “end justifies the means” philosophy would lead to TRPA controlling more than planning. Property owners felt that down-zoning land to the point where building was next to impossible was like taking of property without just compensation. Families that owned property for years in hopes of someday retiring and building a home were turned away at the counter with little value left to their property, property taxes ongoing and no one wanting to buy their unbuildable lot.

The growing fines and mitigation fees were seen as taxation without representation. Some called mitigation bribery, because it seemed if you had enough money you could build. The regional government rules and regulations were seen as an illegal use of police powers. TRPA claimed the powers of the federal government, a state, city or county, depending on how it helped them in court.

Citizens didn’t have redress against their elected officials, because they weren’t elected. A majority of each state delegation was appointed, and outnumbered the city and county officials on the board who were also appointed. It actually took a majority vote of both states to get some projects approved. Nevada has chaffed at California appointees who don’t live in the basin outvoting and denying projects in Nevada.

It’s a sore spot for Tahoe citizens to be cast as hurting the environment. Most moved here just because they loved this amazing place, giving up more money elsewhere to be conscientious caretakers of the environment.

Yet, the Sierra Club and League to Save Lake Tahoe shamed us at every turn, berating our local leaders and stopping public works projects. Their pressure on TRPA has been immense by having the California Attorney General effectively acting as their legal counsel. The threat of lawsuit and litigation has embroiled, or stopped, the agency for years. The League has held on to the original environmental thresholds as if they were brought down from Mount Tallac on golden tablets. Those thresholds were only the best guesses at the time. After millions of dollars spent on studies, better ideas have surfaced regarding air and water quality and land use. There is science and there is political science. The League has chosen the latter.

TRPA has had good executive directors and bad. Those who let the absolute power go to their heads have ruled like despotic dictators and crippled our economy, leaving our town frozen as a museum of the ’60s.

Opportunities to replace poorly designed buildings and neighborhoods with better erosion control have been lost. When a good executive director has come along, they’ve been frustrated by the differences between the states and threats of lawsuits.

The current executive director, Joanne Marchetta, is a very good administrator. She gets it. She has embarked on an effort to turn the staff around from the old ways that have generated the horror stories we’ve all either experienced or heard. She’s an eloquent spokesperson for what the agency could possibly be.

But it’s the Governing Board that sets the policies. The political appointees’ intrigues and agendas are too much for anyone to manage. Those appointees appear to represent people who already have their lake-front homes and don’t want us, the riff raff, living here at all.

Just as a man who has been in prison for 40 years is often afraid of freedom, there are those who panic at the thought of TRPA going away or changing to elected representation. I’m not among those who think that terrible things might happen, though the League executive Rochelle Nason threatened the Nevada senators with dire consequences at their hearing.

I’m confidant that the roughly two dozen other state and federal agencies that also regulate our lives will be enough. In fact, Nevada isn’t proposing to not govern on environmental issues, but rather to get back to self governing. Our own elected officials will still have to meet National Environmental Policy Act and California Environmental Quality Act requirements as well as answer to we the people. I’m confident that, just as in the rest of America, we can keep Tahoe blue under the republic set in motion by that grand experiment in governing called democracy. Imagine what might happen if democracy broke out here in Lake Tahoe.

– Duane Wallace has lived at Lake Tahoe since 1974.


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