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Protecting views called vital to Tahoe economy

Patrick McCartney

Editor’s note: This is the ninth installment in the Tahoe Daily Tribune’s examination of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s five-year evaluation of Lake Tahoe’s environment. Today, a look at scenic resources and community design.

Of all the elements of the Tahoe Basin environment examined by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, none is probably more important to the visitor than panoramic views of Lake Tahoe and its mountain peaks.

Yet, the basin’s scenic resources is a subject few residents pay attention to, according to Andrew Strain, a TRPA senior planner.

“The scenic and community design thresholds are often overlooked, but they are of outstanding importance to the success of our region’s economy,” Strain said. “What we are trying to get at is that our mountain community ought to look like it belongs in the mountains.”

Since the TRPA adopted nine principal environmental standards, or thresholds, in 1982, the bistate agency has tried to translate the vision of what the basin should look like into practical guidelines for development.

“We had to translate the value statements into details that would help people on both sides of the (TRPA’s planning) counter make everyday decisions,” Strain added.

While the agency has reported progress in two of the four scenic resource thresholds, the 1996 Evaluation reported that only views from recreational sites meet the desired standard.

Success has been difficult to come by in several other areas, including the improvement of views along the shoreline corridor, reducing unpleasant signage in urban areas and the adoption of community design standards.

In addressing the need to protect the basin’s views from major travel corridors, the agency devised a rating system for 45 road segments and 33 shoreline units. Each unit represents a continuous viewshed of similar character.

Ratings for each roadway unit use six indicators that include the presence of human development, landscape characteristics and the variety of scenery. Since the rating system was devised in 1971, monitoring of roadways was conducted five times, most recently in 1991 and 1996.

Over the last five years, views from nine of the 45 roadway units have improved, principally in South Lake Tahoe and Tahoe City. The agency credited redevelopment and construction of erosion-control projects for the improvement.

Despite the improved ratings, the same 23 roadway segments that did not meet the threshold standard in 1991 still do not meet the scenic standards.

Over the same period, three of the 33 shoreline units declined in scenic quality, a result of new and remodeled residences that are considered too bulky or too close to the water’s edge for their site. Also, the agency reported a significant increase in new fences built during the period.

With the decline in the three shoreline units, nine of the 33 shoreline segments are now short of complying with the scenic resource standard.

In the 1996 Evaluation, the agency identified a number of roadway and shoreline units that it considers to be at risk of further degradation. At-risk roadways include a portion of the Pioneer Trail, Stateline, Spooner and Brockway summits, Ponderosa Ranch, Mt. Rose Highway and Cedar Flat.

Shoreline units that are considered at risk include Bijou, Zephyr Cove, Lincoln Park, Jameson Beach, Rubicon Bay, Carnelian Bay and Flick Point.

One problem in attaining the threshold is the practice by some hopeful builders of allowing existing problems to remain, so that improving them might be considered an offset for future building or expansion.

While community design standards will take years to have a great impact on urban views, the TRPA is confident that the community plans newly adopted for many areas will protect Lake Tahoe’s most important economic asset.

“Our ability to preserve the basin’s stunning scenery will play a big part in our economic success in the future, especially views of the lake,” Strain said.


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