With greater understanding, we humans are changing the way we develop the built environment in the Lake Tahoe basin. Older structures swim in ‘seas of asphalt,’ which we now know is an impermeable surface that leads to uncontrolled runoff spewing into the lake, the number one danger to Lake Tahoe’s effervescing clarity.

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) was created to guide human activity in the basin. Redevelopment of older sites with an emphasis on environmental concerns is a high priority. But as they say, ‘the devil is in the details.’ Developers, existing communities and the TRPA face hard questions as they work to balance environmental regulations, community living and economical benefit. Boulder Bay, a large redevelopment project in Crystal Bay, illustrates this ongoing discussion.

Boulder Bay is a $250 million project that will redevelop the outdated Tahoe Biltmore Lodge and Casino and the site of the former Tahoe Mariner Hotel into an ‘escape to the lake’ experience, touted as a high-end destination resort where the focus will be less on roulette and more on recreation. The current lodge has 92 hotel rooms and a 22,400 gross-square foot casino, with a parking lot that covers more than 60,000 feet. Boulder Bay future plans include 366 hotel and fractional ownership units, 21 whole ownership and 34 workforce housing units. The project design is a ‘pedestrian-friendly village’ that includes retail, dining, conference facilities, a health and fitness spa, a ‘green space park,’ underground parking and a casino that will reduced to 10,000 square feet. The 15-acre site will develop a ‘sense of place for tourists and the community that reflects the Tahoe experience,’ says Brian Helm, Project Director of Boulder Bay.

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Not everyone is excited about the proposed project. Friends of Crystal Bay was formed in response to the proposed redevelopment. To date, nearly 300 people have signed a petition against the Boulder Bay project. When asked what the group wants from the developers, Ann Nichols, spokesperson for the group said, ‘We want a way to get around the gridlock that happens in front of the casinos. People living on the hill want safe access to Highway 28. The height density needs to scaled to the site, and we’d like to see the number of total units decrease to 150.’

Boulder Bay is one of nine projects around the lake that is participating inTRPA‘s Community Enhancement Program (CEP). CEP developments, touted as ‘smart-growth projects,’ must focus on improving core downtown or recreational areas, and provide substantial environmental, economic and social benefits. (For further information about the nine projects currently participating, see Moonshine Ink, Vintage 6, Nip 1, ‘A New Take on Development in the Tahoe Basin’).

Many people say TRPA regulations are too restrictive to allow the sort of redevelopment that is desired. CEP allows the TRPA to ‘trade’ the relaxing of some regulations for the commitment to environmental improvements by developers.
‘The CEP uses incentives to leverage environmental net gains,’ said Dennis Oliver, Communications Representative for TRPA. These ‘incentives’ are considered as commodities for the developers, giving them, for example, more than the usually allowed commercial floor space or tourist accommodation units.

The projects may include amendments to current ordinances only if the developer can prove that the amendments enhance the environmental gain. ‘We are willing to amend ordinances in the following areas – density, height and parking,’ Oliver said.

Currently, the Biltmore property buildings have a height of 76 feet within 7 feet of Highway 28. The Boulder Bay plan includes a height amendment that will ‘stair-step’ buildings from Highway 28 to deeper into the property with buildings at the back at 86 feet. Roger Witternberg, Boulder Bay President and CEO, said the plans were developed in line with the North Stateline Community Plan, which encourages increased height so the property encompasses less coverage.

In March, Boulder Bay LLC submitted their application plan to TRPA. TRPA responded by requesting further information and indicated that an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) will be needed. TRPA has requested further information on traffic and transportation analysis, water and air quality and two amendments requested by the developer – amending the height of the building, and amendments to the community plan boundary. ‘This particular project is very complicated,’ said Oliver.

The number of categories that the TRPA requested of Boulder Bay suggest to Carl Young, Project Director for the League to Save Lake Tahoe, that there are enough questions about the environmental impacts to justify the EIS. ‘The CEP demonstration projects should exemplify the environmental gains and need to go over and above by a substantial amount. These significant impacts need to be fully analyzed.’

According to Wittenberg, ‘The request for the EIS is right in line with our expectations.’ He said the project requires an EIS in order to review more in-depth the proposed plan and to study different environmental alternatives. The current project plan includes reducing site coverage, making water quality improvements and removing overhead utilities.

Moreover, ‘this project is a fulfillment of a vision that was laid out a long time ago,’ Wittenberg said. (See sidebar, North Stateline Tahoe Community Plan.) ‘We want to create an experience that is more in tune with the lake.’ The CEO believes that creating town centers is the first step toward accomplishing an improved public transportation system. ‘Higher density with cool stuff. Within the rules that were laid out 12 years ago.’ The ‘cool stuff’ that Wittenberg has in mind include a four star resort, a health and wellness center and shuttles that will take guests to recreational activities such as skiing, biking or hiking. He envisions facilities at the ski slopes with associated clubs where hotel guests can leave their ski equipment. Wittenberg, who sits on the Board of Trustees for the Sierra Nevada College, is enlisting the college to develop culinary and health programs in conjunction with the resort. The casino will be downsized, so it will only service the hotel and the focus of the retail will be local. ‘Hopefully all the elements are here already. We want people to find something here that they can’t find anywhere else,’ Wittenberg said.

Increased tourism and retail means increased traffic in the minds of many Crystal Bay residents. Boulder Bay also proposes a reduction and/or realignment of roads, which will make gridlock even worse, says the Friends of Crystal Bay. In the beginning of May, the Washoe County Planning Commission approved Boulder Bay’s request to redesign Wassou Road, abandon Reservoir Road, and a slope variance for where Lakeview Avenue will intersect with Wassou Road. The roads have for years been a way for locals to maneuver around the gridlock on Highway 28 in front of the myriad of casinos. The Friends group has filed an appeal to Washoe County Commissioners that has a preliminary hearing date of June 24. Safety issues relating to intersections with Hwy. 28 and the steepness of the realignment of Wassou Road are also a concern. Property owner Marci Lawrence was first a proponent of closing Reservoir Road until she realized that the closure might bring more traffic to her street. ‘My main concern is increasing the number of cars. I have a small child, and live right next to the road. Closing Reservoir Road will make it worse, in terms of his safety,’ Lawrence said.

Jack McAuliffe has owned a home in the neighborhood for the past 40 years. He doesn’t have a problem with the redevelopment, but is very concerned about the abandonment and realignment of the streets. ‘This will create more of a traffic problem than it is now. The county didn’t take the responsible approach when it approved this request. I’m not protesting the fundamental rights of a property owner to develop their land, and I hope they will be successful. But not to the determent of the community and other property owners.’ When asked if he would frequent the ‘village’ in the resort, McAuliffe said, ‘ I won’t be walking down there for shopping, the amenities will only be for people staying at the resort.

With several developments on the drawing board for the North Shore, some people are stressing the need to look at the cumulative impacts on traffic. ‘This project is one of many – Crystal Bay, Kings Beach and Tahoe Vista – all of these projects are combined in a small stretch along the lake,’ said Young, of the League to Save Lake Tahoe. He suggests that the key cumulative impacts of all should be studied together, and that the community ask itself fundamental questions about its future: ‘What do we want for our communities? What is the threshold of the lake supporting these developments economically and environmentally? Is there a need for updating the community plans created over 12 years ago?’
Environmental and public gains are essential, according to Oliver. ‘Through public meetings and workshops about CEP or a particular project, the public has an extraordinary opportunity to participate,’ he says. Perhaps discovered in those meetings or located in the reams of paperwork from various upcoming studies, the answers will be found – as clear as Lake Tahoe.

North Stateline Community Plan
12 years later
The plan adopted in April 1996 by TRPA, Washoe and Placer County, was intended to guide development in the North Stateline community area for, ‘at least the next ten years,’ according to the document. The specific vision of the plan was to create a ‘family-oriented destination resort.’ Goals for the plan included action items for land use, transportation, conservation recreation, and public service and facilities. Critics wonder if the plan, created 12 years ago in a time before climate change was considered a reality, is outdated and needs updating.

Here is a sampling of the ‘Goals, Policies and Action Programs’:
•Buffer adjacent residential uses from the commercial, tourist and public service
uses of the casino area through site design, landscaping, vegetation and
screening.
• Connect existing and future land uses with a pedestrian path system.
•Encourage land use patterns that reduce the need for travel and increase
access to transit.
•All projects are encouraged to use architectural designs and materials which
are unique to North Stateline and which strengthen North Stateline’s resort
image.
•Create a pedestrian friendly and pedestrian safe environment, which provides
more opportunity for pedestrian activities and reduces emphasis on the auto.
•Reduce the visual predominance of parking lots and asphalt.
•Increase resident and visitor spending within the North Stateline community
plan area.
•Strengthen the area’s potential as a world-class, nationally renowned, tourist
destination resort.

Source: North Stateline Community Plan, April 1996, Adopted by the TRPA, Washoe County and Placer County

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