Naysayers want more, agency says there is enough
The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency is an unchecked bureaucracy that on paper has good intentions, but has wielded its power too far and needs to have oversight, critics contend.
Whether it’s a homeowner who wants to put in an addition or a businessman who is trying to make improvements to a storefront, the TRPA has a say in every kind of building and improvement that takes place in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
But instead of doing things in a timely, orderly fashion, TRPA has been known to drag its feet on projects because of staffing issues and a checklist of rigid regulations. Critics charge the TRPA goes over the line with regulations, calling some of them highly subjective measuring systems based on opinion and not science.
“I absolutely believe there needs to be regulation at the lake and regulation of the environment,” said Chuck Otto, a board member of the Committee for Reasonable Regulation for Lake Tahoe, a TRPA watchdog group. “But it should be within reason and not based on what someone says should be without having any scientific data to back it up. And that’s what they’ve been doing for years.”
Otto cites the 1969 Compact between California and Nevada that formed TRPA and compares it to the scenic threshold passed by the Governing Board on July 24, 2002, as an example of how policies intended to protect the lake are being superseded by what the group believes to be frivolous rulings.
Take the scenic threshold that requires shoreline homes to meet a set of strict codes. All new homes must be painted TRPA-approved dark shades. Homes must be landscaped and the landscaping must screen the homes so they are not visible from the lake.
The rules are absurd and violate any notion of personal property rights, Otto said, speaking for the group which has sued TRPA to stop enforcement of the threshold.
“We believe (the scenic review system) had no economic analysis or no environmental analysis attached to it; that it has no proof of market research that the scenic views from the lake are a problem,” Otto said. “The passing of that, we believe, is a breach of what was written in the original Compact.”
The Compact states that the TRPA’s mission is to maintain an equilibrium between the natural endowment of the lake and the basin and the man-made environment.
The point of contention is the word equilibrium. How is that defined? The group wants a judge to decide.
“What the charter states now, which can be found on their Web site and what has been publicly stated at meetings by TRPA staff is that their charter is to maintain the natural dominance and negate anything man-made,” Otto said.
The balance or what the TRPA calls equilibrium has also been lost when it comes to growth, he added. The Compact states that TRPA is to provide for orderly growth and development.
Otto cites snags and delays in building plans and homeowners who simply want to add a window to their home to provide for light and heat sources but are needlessly being run through a bureaucratic wringer.
And the thing is, he stated, if a window is constructed wrong, is off by 1 inch, or a deck was not built to code, the homeowner is penalized and told to start over again, costing thousands of dollars.
In the group’s opinion, TRPA does not promote orderly growth and development. The group argues TRPA has two basic problems. First, it does not follow what its Compact says.
Second, it doesn’ t want be held accountable.
“They keep hammering that they are independent and nobody can tell them what to do. We strongly believe they need oversight,” Otto said.
Attempts made by the Nevada Legislature to withdraw from the Compact have been unsuccessful. The latest being introduced this year by Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, R-Reno.
On the California side, State Sen. Rico Oller, R-San Andreas, has unsuccessfully authored legislation that would have required all TRPA members to be elected from the areas they serve. The legislation, Oller contends, would have ensured accountability by making each board member pass a ballot test.
Some TRPA critics have suggested an oversight committee. Oller said he is against the idea.
“Creating another bureaucracy to deal with an existing bureaucracy sounds awfully bureaucratic to me, and still doesn’t provide for the kind of accountability that residents have been demanding and deserve in the Lake Tahoe region,” Oller said. “Bureaucracy is never the answer and the creation of a new commission or board to oversee the TRPA isn’t what voters had in mind or want. The TRPA should be an elected body and held accountable to those that are affected by this agency.”
But something must be done because the agency risks collapse, said Sue Abrams, a 25-year resident of the basin and owner of Abrams Realty in South Lake Tahoe.
Like Otto’s group, Abrams argues that the agency has violated the premise and intention of its charter by appointing members to its Governing Board with one political purpose: To shut down growth and development in the basin.
When the TRPA started, the charter was established so there was an organization and an agency that would have a board filled will people from different backgrounds, from environmental to business, Abrams said.
In the late 1970s, the Governing Board was driven by environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and the League to Save Lake Tahoe, she said. The result was a number of developments, business and home improvement projects that were done illegally and not up to up to building code.
“It was at that point where people said, ‘Why bother?’ with the TRPA, because if you did, it would never get done,” Abrams said.
Acting TRPA Executive Director Jerry Wells said he is aware of building violations, both then and now. But the agency has beefed up its enforcement since the 1970s and violations are happening with less frequency.
“We have violations that occur in the basin from time to time, but I would have to believe they are significantly less now,” Wells said.
With the adoption of the TRPA regional plan in 1984, there was an immediate injunction placed on the plan, which lasted until 1987. The injunction was made by the League to Save Lake Tahoe, the California attorney general and on the property’s rights side, by the Tahoe Sierra Preservation Council. The injunction halted new building, but did allow for modifications to existing structures.
“For some the plan was too strict, for some it wasn’t strict enough,” Wells said.
After the building moratorium was lifted, there was a healthy balance between the environmental groups and the building community, Abrams said.
“There was a consensus that people wanted to work together,” she said. “Homeowners stopped bypassing the agency and the bootlegging stopped.”
But environmental groups upped the ante when TRPA began to come out with what she calls questionable science around lake clarity issues. The bureaucracy and the threshold standards peaked in 2000 when Juan Palma was named executive director, she said.
“It’s all gone downhill, all controlled by the League to Save Lake Tahoe,” Abrams said. “The fact of the matter is, under Palma, TRPA has stopped acting as an agency intended to keep Lake Tahoe clean and has now become a homeowners association,” she said.
For Otto’s Committee for Reasonable Regulations group, the intent of the lawsuit is to get a judge to determine that both states need to enact an oversight committee for the TRPA.
Because TRPA was formed by an agreement between two states, both should have a joint, well-defined oversight committee that has the power to override the Governing Board, critics says.
Nobody is arguing whether TRPA is needed, because it is, Otto insists. If there wasn’t TRPA, there would be runaway growth around the lake and the water would become more polluted.
“The real question is about accountability,” Otto said. “There is no accountability. If you ask TRPA staff who they are accountable to, they will tell you the Governing Board. But who is the Governing Board accountable to? Nobody. It’s a bizarre, rogue agency.”
Wells firmly disagrees.
On the Nevada side there is an oversight committee of the Legislature which meets every other year. The committee provides a forum for legislators to weigh in on TRPA decisions the Governing Board makes.
California, however, does not have such a committee.
Wells argues that accountability also stretches to the states because it depends on them for 60 percent of its funding.
“We do have oversight relative to our budgets,” Wells said. “It is a majority of our budget and they hold legislative hearings, which are overviewed by the two state Legislatures.”
Also, the 15-member Governing Board acts as an oversight to the organization itself, with a majority made up of elected officials from each county and South Lake Tahoe. Plus, the TRPA has a 19-member Advisory Planning Commission that meets monthly to discuss policy. The Governing Board and the planning commission have public hearings before policy is ever approved, Wells said.
“I feel we have an abundance of oversight for the agency and can’t anticipate a need for more oversight than what is already being provided,” Wells said.
Still, the agency will undergo an organizational review by an independent consultant, which was recommended this year by the the Nevada Legislature’s oversight committee. The four- to six-month review by Washington state-based Strategica will identify any obstacles the organization may have in meeting its goals, Wells said.
Part of the review will be to get public input and comments from organizations that the TRPA works with, Wells said.
“Essentially, we are taking a fresh look at how we operate and where we can make improvements,” he said.