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Lake clarity dependent on TRPA enforcing rules

Michael Donahoe, Conservation co-chair of Tahoe Area Sierra Club

Efforts to restore Lake Tahoe’s purity have never been more urgent. This according to an article in the Aug. 1 edition of USA Today. In the same article, Charles Goldman, the world’s foremost authority on lakes, talks about the critical role TRPA plays in this effort. Without them, Lake Tahoe would have gone to hell in a hand basket. E

Though their efforts and leadership are essential, TRPA’s role is not a popular one. That should come as no surprise. They are, after all, a regulatory agency.

But they do need to follow the rule of law and be consistent and fair in enforcing their regulations in order to maintain their credibility and the cooperation of the people who live and visit here.



That credibility is not always what it should be. The perception of many in the basin is that if you have enough money or clout and hire the right consultants and attorneys, you can do pretty much what you want to. E

That perception is killing TRPA’s effectiveness. And if TRPA is ineffective, this lake will not be saved. It’s as simple as that.



The latest attack on TRPA’s consistency and credibility revolves around vacation rentals. TRPA regulations stipulate that vacation rentals be limited to those areas that are zoned for them. There are those in the community who think that’s unfair. But the fact is, just the opposite is the case. Not enforcing the regulations is what’s unfair, and at the same time very destructive to TRPA’s credibility and effectiveness, and consequently very destructive to the future of our lake. E

Think about it. Do we really want a situation where whoever raises the biggest ruckus can get the rules ignored just for them? Especially when it’s at the expense of the property rights of neighbors who have a reasonable expectation that zoning regulations be enforced.

I think not.

So you don’t think the regulations are correct? Fine. Work to get them altered. There are procedures for changing TRPA zoning ordinances. Probably one of the first steps is to study the impact of vacation rentals on the environment. E

Maybe 10 or 20 people in a house most weekends (and many weekdays during the high seasons) is less impacting than a family of four living here full time. E

Maybe visitors can be motivated to care about the lake as much as locals do. E

Maybe the congestion and air pollution is less if we have four to 10 cars per household part of the time rather than two or three cars all of the time.

These things need to be studied.

The next step might be public hearings to explore looking at the property rights of citizens who purchased their homes in areas zoned residential and the property rights of investors who purchase property in the same residential areas but want to maximize the return on their investments.

Whatever the specific steps, work to get the laws changed if you don’t agree with them, but don’t ignore them.

People complain that the zoning laws haven’t been enforced in the past, therefore shouldn’t be now. In matters of the law, past non-enforcement does not constitute justification for current non-compliance. Can you imagine saying to a judge, I’ve been driving 50 mph in that school zone for five years, so it’s not right to give me a ticket now. Nonsense.

There are other factors involved in the vacation rental debate. Things like the impact of vacation rentals on the composition of the community and the decrease of full-time residents and whether that contributes to the closing of schools and the loss of teachers and jobs. Things like the impact of vacation rentals on the inventory of affordable housing and the possibility that there will be increased pressure to build new affordable housing on raw land, which we desperately need to maintain as raw land so as to filter out the pollutants that are ruining the lake’s clarity.

It seems to me that these are important but secondary concerns. The core issue here is whether TRPA is going to maintain the integrity and credibility and strength it needs to save this lake. Narrow special interests, no matter how vocal or politically connected, should not be determining the fate of this national treasure that is the birth right of all Americans.

People shouldn’t get mad at TRPA for doing their job, they should get upset with those who aren’t following the law.

— Michael Donahoe is Conservation co-chair of Tahoe Area Sierra Club. He may be reached at

donahoe@charter.net.


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