TRPA Q&A: Clarifying complicated zoning issues
July 5, 2010
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency is currently considering a planning shift away from traditional zoning systems to more modern ones in an attempt to encourage environmentally oriented redevelopment. The agency is jettisoning Plan Area Statements in favor of an emerging planning system called “transect zoning.”
While TRPA officials are confident transect zoning will be beneficial to the economic and environmental prosperity of the basin, critics say the new paradigm is needlessly complicated, inherently flawed and doomed to fail while promoting a more urbanized setting by allowing increased height and density in the core community areas.
Others claim they don’t know enough about the planning shift to criticize or compliment. In an attempt to clarify lingering confusion, the Sierra Sun sent a series of questions to Harmon Zuckerman, director of the Regional Plan Update at TRPA. The following lists those questions and Zuckerman’s responses.
Harmon Zuckerman: In our single-family residential neighborhoods, the proposed shift to a transect zoning system will not change anything. In our commercial areas, a transect zoning system simply provides more options to a commercial property owner than what we have today. This system will promote mixed-use development so people can live, work and play in the same area without having to always use their cars. Transect zoning is being proposed as a tool to create safer communities and better water quality than we have today.
HZ: What is missing in the current system of Plan Area Statements is any real acknowledgment of community character. In comparison to what we want to do with the transect system, the current system provides a one-size-fits all approach. Under transects, an area might include several different zoning districts, not just one. This will allow for the protection of sensitive natural areas and the preservation and enhancement of the character of neighborhoods. It will also let community members participate in the process of envisioning the future of their communities and putting zoning into place to make it real.
HZ: Transect zoning will improve water quality and lake clarity, while making our communities safer and stronger.
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HZ: From a planning perspective, there are no real negatives. It will take time and money to put the transect system in place. People may need a short while to get used to the new system. But even positive change requires work. And the way the transects will be laid out in our ordinances – with pictures and diagrams explaining the rules – will help people to understand the new system more easily than the old one.
HZ: Of all the land that has been or can be developed at Tahoe, almost 80 percent is zoned for single-family residential use. The transect system would zone all of this single-family residential land as “T3,” and there are no physical changes associated with this. The 20 percent that is currently zoned for Commercial, Tourist and Public Service use would be zoned as “T4” and “T5.” This is where almost all of the proposed changes will happen. Businesses and community members will have the opportunity to work with TRPA and local planners to choose the character that fits their vision for these areas.
HZ: The transects may be more complex, but they are not more complicated than today’s zoning system. In fact, the use of what planners call “form based code” – in other words, regulations that are explained with pictures and diagrams to create the desired form – would make transects more understandable than the zoning system we have now. Further, TRPA is in the process of making its code more user friendly, and has adopted a new organizational structure that will make the Agency significantly more efficient and effective.
HZ: TRPA is working with local governments to update their Community Plans (CPs) to be consistent with the future Regional Plan and not the present one, so they won’t be obsolete. The new focus of the Regional Plan is environmental redevelopment and water quality improvements to make our communities safer and stronger and make our lake cleaner and clearer. The CPs ought to be updated to reflect that new focus. And at this point, the Regional Plan is close enough to being done that the CP updates can change gears and get into step with the RPU.
HZ: The current zoning at Lake Tahoe is designed to conform to the current shape of our communities. And what we know is that the major sources of pollution in the Lake are our built areas and the roads that serve them. The proposed transect zoning system promotes strong communities through good design, water quality improvements and a focus on walkable, vibrant centers where people can live, work and play. We already have examples of this type of development at Tahoe, and it’s working. The new zoning system would make better development the status quo here.
HZ: Any increases in height and density under the new plan would be limited and applied in small core areas. In fact, the staff-proposed alternative is all about local choice. Today, whole Community Plans could be built to 48 feet and four stories. Not many people know that. Under the new Regional Plan, community members would have a chance to help develop zoning that is more sensitive to the character of their neighborhoods.
HZ: The only dramatic change being proposed is to refocus the Regional Plan on recreating our existing town and tourist areas on safety, walkability, protection of the water quality and clarity of the Lake. There is no proposal to dramatically increase the height and density here at Tahoe.
HZ: The key to transect zoning is to allow communities to tailor their zoning to their own needs. The vision that residents and visitors have expressed is about increasing the vitality of communities protecting the Lake – not urbanizing the Basin – and TRPA has listened. Areas suitable for environmental redevelopment are already developed.
HZ: To achieve lake clarity and environmental redevelopment, we need to move development out of sensitive areas and into our town centers, replacing the outdated designs of the past with the best designs we can build today. So it’s not about growth – it’s about a shift.
HZ: The approval of the Plan would set the basic zoning system in place around the Basin. In the residential areas, shifting to transects won’t change anything. In the existing town and tourist centers – which are the only places where changes are proposed – the specific design, density, height, and use regulations will be determined in cooperation with local planners and residents during the Community Plan update process.
HZ: For the average project, be it residential or commercial, permitting will be allowed under the current Regional Plan and Code until the new Regional Plan and Code update are adopted. Large projects that require Plan amendments, besides the ones that are already in the “pipeline,” will have to wait until the overall Regional Plan update is complete.