TRPA has survived many battles
He cast one of two votes in the Nevada Senate against creation of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency in 1968.
Former state Sen. Lawrence “Jake” Jacobsen, a Republican from Minden, says he voted that way because he doesn’t like the concept of regional government.
“Homeowners (in Tahoe) don’t like to be told what to do no more than we do,” said Jacobsen, sitting on a concrete step in front of the house he’s lived in for 50 years. “Nobody likes extra government.”
But times changed and so did Jacobsen’s views on the TRPA. He said if it weren’t for the regional agency, the federal government would take over. That would likely be even tougher for residents of the Lake Tahoe Basin to accept.
If the bistate Compact were dissolved, the job of regulating land use and building at the Lake Tahoe Basin would fall to the government of the five counties and one city in the basin. This is the scenario that many advocates of the environment say failed to protect the basin’s natural environment during the building boom of the 1960s and led to the concept of TRPA.
Nevada legislators have introduced six bills, four at Jacobsen’s behest, to withdraw from the Compact since it was approved in 1969. The most recent was drafted last spring.
Either state can withdraw from the Compact that created the TRPA by passing legislation. It was ratified by Congress in 1969. The congressional approval was a rubber stamp to ensure the legislation in each state mirrored the other, said Jim Baetge, former TRPA executive director.
California has never proposed legislation to withdraw from the bistate Compact. The California Attorney General’s Office instead has pressured the agency over the years to take a harder line when it comes to protecting the environment.
The bills in Nevada all fizzled. Two made it out of committee. Jacobsen said he sponsored the bills “mostly because I didn’t want California telling us what to do.” His last attempt occurred in 1987.
Today, at the age of 82, Jacobsen said he has come to realize a governing body is necessary at Lake Tahoe to balance the interests of California and Nevada.
“There’s a need for dual supervision in both states,” he said. “But having a federal agency on top of that is certainly different or worse than having a regional board.”
Jacobsen has served as a member of the legislative committee that keeps an eye on the policies of the TRPA since it formed in 1985. The oversight committee meets every 1.5 years between the Legislature’s biannual sessions. Jacobsen served as chairman of the committee for two years. He said he disagrees with people who think the agency is not accountable to the public.
“I’ve heard that comment — that they are not elected so they don’t have responsibility,” Jacobsen said. “But we have an elected governor and people have the right to go and complain. Responsibility comes back to the individual and whether they have expressed their concerns … it’s not a closed corporation by any means.”
Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, R-Reno, who brought forward a bill last spring to withdraw Nevada from the TRPA said she thinks the agency can be compared to a closed corporation. She introduced a bill last spring that would have pulled Nevada out of the Compact and disbanded the Nevada Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, an offshoot of the TRPA that regulates remodel projects inside the Tahoe casinos.
“They are not really controlled by anybody,” Angle said. “The natural environment has taken precedence over everything man-made and is forcing residents to practically abandon their property. We have high end and that’s just about it. If you want to live at the lake, you’ve got to be able to afford it.”
The Legislature never voted on the bill because so many politicians have a stake in the agency and political pressure pushed it off the agenda, Angle said.
“It’s political at the federal level, the state level — there are too many fingers in the pie,” she said. “We call it getting married to legislation. You fight so hard for it you don’t want to see it damaged.”
Nevada, she said, would still be able to take measures to protect the lake if the bill had become a law.
“It’s not like we want to take away everything,” she said. “Just bring back the balance. We have no equilibrium.”
Angle represents a group of residents at the lake who filed a lawsuit against TRPA last year. The suit disputes the agency’s right to regulate the scenic impact of lakeshore homes. Angle said she will wait to see the outcome of the lawsuit before she decides whether to reintroduce her bill in 2005.
Residents have challenged the TRPA in court a number of times. Most of the time they lose. In April 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 6-3 that the building ban imposed by the agency in 1981 was constitutional.
The court’s decision stemmed from a lawsuit filed in 1984 by the Tahoe Sierra Preservation Council. The council, representing about 400 landowners, claimed the building moratorium was unconstitutional because it amounted to a taking of property without compensation.
The TRPA argued that it halted building at Tahoe to formulate a building plan for the region. Many of the landowners affected by the moratorium ended up selling property well below market price because their bank loans came due, or because their lot was assigned a score by the agency that deemed the property to be at the time too environmentally sensitive to develop.
One the the few landowners at the basin to have challenged an agency ruling and achieved a favorable outcome is a woman who spent $5,000 for 18,000-square-feet of land near a stream at Incline Village in 1971. Attorneys for Bernadine Suitum argued all the way to the Supreme Court that the TRPA had taken her property without compensating her for it.
The Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling and ordered the case back to the lower court for trial. The TRPA settled the case for $600,000. What made Suitum’s case different than that of other property owners is that it involved land in a stream environment zone, a classification that warrants the highest protection from the agency.
Land near streams cannot be developed. They are deemed too sensitive because sediments and nutrients that feed algae in the lake are often deposited by streams.
“The TRPA has designated certain property as stream environment zones,” said Larry Hoffman, the attorney who represented the Tahoe Sierra Preservation Council in its lawsuit against the agency. “It’s treated as a separate little class, which they fess up, right upfront, about. Once they’ve made that determination, if there are no other uses made of it, that’s a taking.”
Hoffman is involved in settlement negotiations for a case similar to the Suitum case. The Bartlett Family Trust owns a half-acre of lakeshore property in South Lake Tahoe. The land is in an area classified as a “barrier beach,” which is considered by the TRPA to be similar to a stream environment zone. TRPA says it will settle the case for fair market value — $570,000.