By Ron Grassi, Leah Kaufman, Kristina Hill, Sue Daniels, Pam Chamblin, Niobe Burden Austere, Don Fulda, Elise Fett, and Dale Munsterman
The communities of Lake Tahoe, the crown jewel of the Sierra, face a battle over their future. Details in recently approved amendments to the 2017 Tahoe Basin Area Plan (TBAP) have raised concerns among residents and conservation organizations. Despite more than 300 received public comments, the Placer County Board of Supervisors passed the amendments on Oct. 31 in Auburn without opening the meeting for public discussion, based on their faulty premise that all of the public’s comments had been previously addressed.
The approved amendments prioritize developer interests and could irreversibly transform the character and quality of life on the North Shore. Residents’ concerns about inadequate analysis of environmental thresholds, wildfire evacuation risks, congested roads, the dearth of affordable workforce housing, and the current impact of short-term rentals should ignite a call to action for everyone in our community.
Distinguished conservation groups including the Tahoe Area Sierra Club, Mountain Area Preservation (MAP), Friends of the West Shore, North Tahoe Preservation Alliance, Tahoe Sierra Clean Air, and the League to Save Lake Tahoe argue that Placer County should have first addressed the impacts of the proposed amendments with a comprehensive environmental analysis instead of a 17-page addendum lacking any substance. Significant changes to the TBAP include modification of land use patterns, removal of parking requirements without a parking plan in place, and reduction of setbacks and lot sizes. There is a lack of California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) required analysis considering recent changes to the lake environment, climate change, tourist visitation, and population growth in adjacent communities.
The League to Save Lake Tahoe voices concerns about the efficaciousness of mitigation measures required to determine the Basin’s carrying capacity and lack of a Placer County cumulative impact analysis under the TRPA’s new environmental threshold for vehicle miles travelled.
Placer County’s decision to amend the TBAP coincides with the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s (TRPA) proposed development code changes for housing. The code revisions allow multi-level buildings up to 65 feet (five stories) to be built in the town centers of Incline Village, Tahoe City, and Kings Beach with zero setbacks, up to 100% lot coverage (no screening), unlimited densities, and no parking, despite 96% of Tahoe Basin workers needing cars, according to the TRPA. Parking would be left to the discretion of developers. Moreover, the amendments would also affect areas outside town centers on hundreds of parcels zoned for multiple family dwellings, from Incline Village to Tahoma, with similar inadequate parking requirements and unlimited density.
TRPA currently has deceptive renderings soliciting additional height for housing. The exhibits don’t represent the proposed four stories in transition zones (between town centers and residential areas) or 65 feet/five stories in town centers. It also has failed to adequately inform the public of its recent two-day flash survey results with more than 630 comments, where 66% of participants indicated their preference for “small multi-family buildings (up to 10 units).” Survey results can be found here.
Although these amendments promise to create hundreds of so-called “achievable housing” units, they are not affordable to the seasonal workforce, minimum wage earners, or even that of positions such as the recently posted county parking enforcement officer at $29.70 per hour. These units are expected to rent at $2,450 per month for a 650-square-foot unit. That corresponds to 60% of the monthly take-home pay for the aforementioned job. The true demand for affordable housing comes from those who power our retail, hospitality, and service industries, as well as families, while village-concept, five-story morphing developments could further degrade equal opportunity for visitors and residents alike.
Investment in redevelopment within the existing framework established by the community in 2017 should be prioritized. The current height limit of 56 feet in town centers already exceeds what the community initially called for. Local architects Don Fulda and Elise Fett and designer Dale Munsterman contend there is no need for additional height to create profitable redevelopment designs and concede such changes could have adverse effects on neighboring properties (such as shading) without appropriate transitions.
Lake Tahoe faces a growing dilemma — the impact of uncontrolled tourism. Last November, Fodor’s Travel declared that, “Lake Tahoe has a people problem.” With 44,000 Basin residents hosting 25 million annual tourists, it’s clear that excessive tourism is taking a toll. While tourism fuels the economy, extreme numbers of visitors lead to overcrowded beaches, traffic congestion, invasive species, wildlife conflicts, and environmental pollution, including the alarming levels of microplastics recently measured.
One of the most critical concerns is insufficient planning for safe evacuation in case of a wildfire. The potential scenario of thousands of uninformed tourists trying to flee a wind-driven wildfire along with residents on our two-lane road system is deeply concerning. The phased evacuation plans do not adequately consider the influx of visitors and could result in catastrophic loss of life.
The housing crisis around Lake Tahoe is partly a result of Placer County not requiring employee housing as part of ski area expansions. The approval of 3,900 short-term rentals (STRs) in Placer County, unaffordable to the workforce, has further exacerbated the situation, affecting neighborhoods, creating excessive vehicle traffic, and reducing long-term workforce housing opportunities by at least 15%, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Harvard Business Review conducted in Colorado mountain towns. The total number of STR permits should be reduced immediately.
We implore the public to demand accountability from the TRPA and local jurisdictions. The public should have equal representation in TRPA and county planning meetings before proposals are finalized. The expertise and lived experience of the local community should be valued in decision-making processes; 3-minute speaking engagements at public hearings aren’t enough.
The original purpose of the TRPA was to prioritize environmental concerns, focusing on scientifically established environmental thresholds, sustainable growth, managed tourism, and the improvement of quality of life for all. This no longer appears to be its priority.
In conclusion, we urge the TRPA and local jurisdictions to prioritize responsible redevelopment that respects the delicate balance between nature and progress.
The public may write to TRPA at firstname.lastname@example.org; find detailed information and follow upcoming meetings at mountainareapreservation.org; and sign a petition at ntpac.org.
~ Ron Grassi is a 45-year Tahoe City homeowner, retired attorney, executive director of the Friends of the West Shore, and on the Sierra Club’s Mother Lode chapter’s litigation committee; Leah Kaufman is a 47-year full-time resident and land planner who owns Kaufman Planning & Consulting, formerly worked for the TRPA, and was on the North Tahoe Design Review Committee for over 20 years; Kristina Hill is a 43-year full-time resident and land planner who owns Hill Planning and formerly worked for the TRPA; Sue Daniels has been a full-time resident since 1958 and is a Tahoe/Truckee real estate agent; Pam Chamblin is a 43-year full-time resident, licensed massage therapist, and longtime Tahoe conservancy advocate; Niobe Burden Austere has owned property in Tahoe since 1998, has worked for Tahoe Forest Hospital, is a local conservancy advocate, and professional photographer; architect Don Fulda lives in Alpine Meadows; Elise Fett is an architect/engineer at Elise Fett and Associates and lives in Crystal Bay; Dale Munsterman of Tahoe Vista is a designer and principal of the Munsterman Group.