TRPA to formalize how it levies fines
Last month the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency fined a resident $60,000 for illegally marking and cutting down eight trees at Incline Village. In May 2001, the agency fined a Douglas County resident $30,000 for removing seven trees without permission.
It is that appearance of inconsistency that Shelly Aldean, a member of the TRPA Governing Board and city councilwoman for Carson City, wants the agency to examine and clarify.
“It’s seems to me to be awfully subjective how these fines are established,” said Aldean at a recent Governing Board meeting.
Governing Board member Ron Slaven, a labor union representative appointed to the board by former Gov. Gray Davis, agreed with Aldean and called for TRPA staff to conduct a workshop on the matter.
“I’m looking for solutions not just fines,” Slaven said.
John Marshall, lead attorney for the TRPA, said he will conduct a workshop on the matter with the agency’s Legal Committee on Nov.17. It is the job of the Legal Committee to review proposed fines – arrived at through negotiation between the violating party and TRPA attorneys – before the full Governing Board votes on them.
“There are a range of factors we use … which aim to deter violations and remedy environmental harm and remove any benefit gained from the violation,” Marshall said. “But that hasn’t been written down. So I think it will be a useful exercise to kind of formalize those considerations so the board members and the public can get a better feel how they work in the negotiated settlements we bring to them.”
The TRPA – charged with protecting the environment of the Lake Tahoe Basin and regulating development within the basin – requires residents to get a permit from the agency before removing any tree wider than 6 inches.
Many tree removal cases investigated by the agency result in a settlement agreement that includes a fine and a commitment from the violator to restore any damage done to the environment.
Governing Board member Hal Cole, who serves on the South Lake Tahoe City Council, said he understands why the TRPA doesn’t establish set fine amounts for environmental violations. Sometimes, he said, the violation involves tree removal to create a better view of the lake for a $15 million home; other times it involves an honest mistake by someone who isn’t as wealthy.
“The circumstance as to why they cut down the trees is probably more important than the tree itself,” Cole said.
Tree removal in the basin is a TRPA issue because it “relates to erosion, it is a scenic resource and it’s tied to the overall health of the ecosystem of the lake,” said Julie Regan, TRPA communications director.
Under the bistate Compact that established the agency, the TRPA is allowed to fine someone up to $5,000 a day per violation. Ground rules established by a 1990 federal court case guide how a violation is negotiated into a settlement agreement, Marshall said.
The 1990 case involved Terrace Land Co. being fined more than $17,000 for cutting a driveway through U.S. Forest Service land without permission. The road was used to access private property.
“We use a range of factors articulated in the TRPA vs. Terrace case,” Marshall said. “The type of violation, egregiousness of the violation, relative willfulness of the violation, the number of violations and whether the violation was procedural or if the activity could have been permitted.”
– Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at email@example.com