Protecting Lake Tahoe, Improving Communities Remain TRPA’s Guiding Stars

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By Julie Regan

Lake Tahoe is an awe-inspiring place that requires constant care and attention. Those of us fortunate enough to live or work in this incredible environment owe a debt of gratitude to all who have worked to safeguard it over time. It is no accident that we can still see down more than 70 feet into the azure depths of the lake, but there’s more work to do.

Tahoe’s communities and ecosystem are deeply interconnected, and this connection has also made the history of development at Lake Tahoe just as complex as the landscape.

How development is viewed in the Tahoe Basin has swung like a pendulum over time. After the Washoe Tribe stewarded these lands for millennia, the lake began a free fall of decline in the 1960s and ’70s because of unplanned development. Leaders in the mid-20th century were calling for a city the size of San Francisco here in the Tahoe Basin.

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In 1969, the states of Nevada and California signed a unique interstate compact creating the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) as the first bistate, regional environmental planning organization in the nation. The first Lake Tahoe Regional Plan in the late ’80s imposed development caps and protected sensitive lands. The plan also set high standards for construction to improve water quality, preserve open space, and maintain scenic quality.

By the 2000s, lake clarity, which had been in decline for decades, had largely stabilized. But policies that stopped harmful development also slowed work to modernize existing homes and for businesses to become more environmentally friendly. As existing properties continued to pollute and become run down, property owners and many of TRPA’s partner agencies questioned how far the pendulum had swung.

The broadly supported 2012 Regional Plan Update was a paradigm shift for Lake Tahoe. The update maintained the growth caps from the original plan while creating new incentives and streamlining permitting services to encourage environmental redevelopment, especially within Lake Tahoe’s aging town centers.

In its first 10 years, the updated plan has helped catalyze $430 million in business and tourist accommodation improvements. Those projects have delivered water quality, scenic, and transportation improvements, and have secured additional workforce housing. A recent 10-year report showed that more than 500,000 pounds of clarity-harming pollutants are being kept out of the lake every year thanks to private property owners and public agencies installing stormwater best management practices (BMPs) to improve water quality.

The paradigm shift of 2012 is still underway. As the pandemic subsides, more environmental redevelopment projects are starting to come forward. The Waldorf Astoria Lake Tahoe project on the site of the old Tahoe Biltmore in Crystal Bay is one example. This project will reduce stormwater pollutants by 90% while improving walkability and transit, and provide workforce housing.

Even though these projects must maintain the existing growth caps and building limits, market demand for upscale development and second homes is high. While the regional plan growth management system saved Lake Tahoe from massive overdevelopment, an unintended consequence has been the trend toward large, expensive homes. TRPA is looking hard at these policies and the governing board is considering changes to encourage more affordable housing to benefit workers, businesses, and the fabric of our communities.

As has been expressed in recent opinion articles in Moonshine Ink, there are concerns today over how TRPA is updating land use polices. Many residents have legitimate concerns over affordable housing, traffic, visitation pressures, and vacation home rentals. Resort towns across the country are grappling with these same issues. While we work together to solve the pressing challenges of the day, let’s remember the incredible progress that has been made since the bistate compact brought the Basin together. The fact is, under TRPA’s Regional Plan, Tahoe remains one of the most protected areas in the nation.

As Tahoe’s conservation story continues, protecting the lake and improving communities will remain TRPA’s guiding stars. As has been proven over the decades, we don’t need to choose between the two.

~ Julie Regan became the executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency in November 2022. She has been an executive at the agency since 2003.

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