Tahoe Basin Area Plan Amendments = Developers’ Dreams Come True


By Ron Grassi

Lake Tahoe is about to experience several extreme changes if Placer County and TRPA get their way and their proposed amendments to the Tahoe Basin Area Plan are approved. In the past, various special interest groups have tried to change one or two development issues at a time, like height limits, traffic considerations, etc. They would succeed on some efforts, but not all. And often the public was wary, as it should be, because the developers and real estate interests behind the proposed changes were identified by the project they were proposing, so no one was shocked at the development-friendly proposals.

But now we’re facing a new type of challenge: The once-upon-a-time-neutral planning department has now gotten into the development business, and given the current wish list, it’s clear the deck is stacked against the public and our beautiful lake. It’s very much like walking into court where you expect to see your adversary but then you see the judge has joined your adversary and is sitting next to him.

I understand and agree with the importance of workforce housing. But that doesn’t mean we sacrifice or compromise the environment. Why not stay within the hard-fought rules, regulations, and zoning requirements, and instead find alternative locations and solutions consistent with the current area plans and zonings of our cities. Likely, the planners will reply that all these effected rules were in their way to accomplishing their goal of workforce housing. As you read the proposed plan, you see code words like “streamline,” “scale back,” “alleviate constraints,” “collaborate.” These may sound great; but look at what’s actually happening.


How could this happen? Actually, it’s not hard to see what’s happened. It’s called “regulatory capture,” which means the regulators who are there to scrutinize an industry and enforce rules and regulations have become so close with that industry and feel comfortable working with them that after a while, they’re sort of partners. When that happens, the public loses big time. What options are then available? Turn to an environmental group for help? Maybe, but few at the lake are wealthy and large enough to afford to fight a multi-faceted program and well-funded government agency. Litigate? That can be very expensive, especially as individual members of the public can’t afford a two- to three-year-plus battle in the courts. Call the environmental sheriff? Not likely as these agencies are fairly autonomous, and there’s no sheriff in town to step up. Once upon a time TRPA was the sheriff, but that changed about 15 years ago when they were captured by the building industry.

So, what’s at stake? Reducing scenic requirements, increasing the heights of structures notwithstanding the limitations in place, reducing and possibly eliminating parking in several areas, and reducing lot sizes and setback requirements, notwithstanding the zoning rules already in place.

This all raises the main question we must ask: What is the CARRYING CAPACITY OF THE LAKE? That is, how much more development and traffic can the lake absorb, consistent with its environmental health and common sense? Have we already reached that point?

To be clear, I favor workforce housing. I favor low-income housing. But I prefer we add this necessary housing in the most sensible way we can. I think this proposed amended plan ignores our already challenged environment. I think this proposed plan is a developer’s dream list come true.

One more point needs to be mentioned. I’ve been actively involved in environmental hearings at Tahoe since about 2010 and have kept current on what’s happening with environmental hearings since we purchased our home in Tahoe City in the late ’70s. “Back in the day” both TRPA and the counties seemed to be listening to our concerns. That changed and I’m not sure when. Maybe in the ’80s or ’90s. I’ve discussed this with several residents actively involved in protecting the lake. The attitude now from the agencies seems to be: “We’ll listen to you; then we’re going to keep building.” I even asked at a TRPA hearing in about 2006: “Have you ever said no to a developer?” The board could not come up with even one project.

True, the agencies would respond that they suggest tweaks, etc., but in the end, they move the project forward. I believe the agencies have already come up with a consensus: They know what’s best for the lake. Where does that leave the public?

~ Ron Grassi is a retired attorney living in Tahoe City. He graduated from law school at New York University in 1965 and after two years of military service practiced law in San Francisco until 2004. He is a board member of Friends of the West Shore and a member of the Motherlode Litigation Committee of the Sierra Club.


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  1. Mr Grassi hits the nail squarely on the head, regulatory capture. The fox now owns the keys to the chicken coop. If Placer County were truly interested in “workforce housing” wouldn’t they have limited short term rentals? Instead, we have three thousand plus STRs and counting, real estate prices went through the roof and neighborhoods have become parts of wealthy folks investment portfolios. The proposed TBAP amendments are a ruse for real estate developers to fill out their wish lists. Mike Henriques, 44 year year around resident, Tahoe City

  2. PS: When I inquired about the meetings between Placer Planning staff and the developer folks, I was told the meetings were not open to the public. The planner said she had been meeting with a group of seven. Regulatory capture!

  3. This plan will encourage damaging development to Lake Tahoe which is already overburdened by tourists and inadquate infrastructure. A popular travel authority (Fodors) has placed Lake Tahoe on its “do not visit” list because of the toxic effects of too many visitors.
    Your changes will primarily benefit the “1%” developers and business owners while placing further burdens on residents and visitors dealing with inadequate housing and recreational opportunities.

    Your best course of action now is to place a moratorium on further development until you can come up with a credible plan to address overburdened roads, pollution, trash, and lack of affordable housing.