We need to have a fundamental debate about the role of the market and the environment at Lake Tahoe. I’ve been reading about “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets” by Michael Sandel in an article by Marco Visscher in Ode Magazine. It struck me that the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency in the new Regional Plan Update is shifting more and more of its regulatory task of achieving and maintaining the environmental thresholds to the market.

TRPA has concocted an elaborate scheme of monetizing developer entitlements such as: buying or trading land coverage all around the lake, selling tourist accommodation units (TAUS), trading current requirements for storm water treatment (BMPS) for future additive height and density, allowing single family residential and TAUS in recreation zoned lands, and asking property owners to tear down their homes in return for development rights in town centers (Incline, Kings Beach, Tahoe City). TRPA claims they are incentivizing redevelopment. The justification is simply that they can’t get property owners to do their BMPS and that no developer would come to Lake Tahoe unless there were financial benefits.


On the ground many of us see insiders making a bundle selling TAUS, property becoming even more expensive due to entitlements and rezoning, wealthy developers getting all the goodies by delaying required BMPS, and the little guy fined and charged exorbitant mitigation fees. We’ve never had a debate about where markets serve the public good and where they don’t belong, especially in the aftermath of the recent economic crisis. Will this reliance on the market even work given the current lack of financing and demand for real estate? What is the proper role of the market as it relates to the environment at Lake Tahoe? Faith in the market is one thing and, says Sandel, “Markets are valuable and effective tools for organizing the production of goods and services. The problem arises when markets are no longer regarded as tools,” but come to define, as in our case at Lake Tahoe, our relationship to saving the environment.

Visscher concludes, “Market values crowd out important nonmarket values worth caring about, especially when market thinking reaches into spheres of life that are traditionally governed by other values. That’s when hard ethical questions arise.”

If we rely too heavily on financial incentives to protect the environment, we undermine or ignore educating people about respecting the environment and taking responsibility for it. “Market mechanisms have entered the field of sustainability, and what is the impact on the idea of environmental protection?”

To date, $1.5 billion dollars have been spent at Tahoe. The TRPA claims we need another $1.5 billion. TRPA, can money buy a healthy environment?

~ Ann Nichols is a 42-year Tahoe resident, a Nevada and California real estate broker, a member of the Lake Tahoe Federal Advisory Board, and president of North Tahoe Preservation Alliance.


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