After four and a half years, the process to plan out the next phase of Truckee’s future is nearly complete.
The current general plan is fast approaching its sunset in two short years, and what this Sierra hamlet needs is a “modern and comprehensive general plan that … really addresses the most pressing issues in our community — wildfire, climate change, sustainability, housing,” says Jenna Gatto, planning manager at the Town of Truckee.
“We think that this plan is better than our 2025 general plan,” she added.
On March 21, town staff will go before the planning commission for recommendation of the general plan and the environmental impact report, followed by an April 11 proposed adoption by town council. The general plan update is paired with a revise of the 1997 Downtown Specific Plan in what’s collectively known as Truckee 2040.
“We’ve taken [almost] five years to really try to listen. Lots of changes have gone into the plan … We feel very excited that this plan will set the wheels in motion for where we think the Truckee community wants to go,” Gatto said. “I will say not everybody will be happy with what is in the plan; there’s never going to be a plan that satisfies the entire Truckee community, because frankly, our community has a lot of diverse interests at this point.”
While town staff and council members are looking forward to wrapping up the plan, several key stakeholders are adamant that the guiding document lacks clear direction and accountability. Even after nearly five years of work, more time is needed, they argue.
“The town coming back and saying, ‘Hey, we’re just going to move forward, [finalize the EIR], respond to comments, and go to adoption’ — it to me says that they just want to be done at all costs,” said Sophia Heidrich, advocacy director for Mountain Area Preservation, a local environmental advocacy nonprofit. “They don’t really care. They want this to be over and they don’t care how good or how thorough, or whether or not they really have all the appropriate mechanisms in place to make sure that they’re mitigating the impacts, and that they’re being held accountable for the promises they’re making to the community.”
Patrick Flora, who up until recently worked as the government affairs manager for the Contractors Association of Truckee Tahoe (and has a slew of other former Truckee titles, like mayor, council member, CATT founding member, planning chair, and planning commissioner), pointed to a lack of specificity in the proposed plan: “A long-standing backroom policy with the town, particularly on the planning side of life, is, ‘Look, we’ll figure it out. Here’s the broad strokes. We’re all in favor of world peace; we’ll get back to you on how we’re going to achieve that.’”
To get this far
General plans serve as governments’ blueprints in guiding a community’s long-term vision. They are required by the state for every city or county in California, and must be updated periodically, according to California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. That tends to be every 15 to 20 years.
Creating Truckee’s 2040 General Plan began in November 2018 with anticipation to complete the process in early 2021. The delay to 2023 happened in part because of the Covid-19 pandemic waylaying planning and meeting efforts, but also because the general plan advisory committee (GPAC) and town staff grappled over the land use element, one of seven topics required by the state and one of eight elements overviewed for the general plan, for two years. With the extended time, GPAC still did not come up with an alternative recommendation to pass on to the planning commission.
Despite no strong consensus, the machine rolled forward. A draft general plan and draft environmental impact report (EIR), a final version of which is required for any project that has the potential to do damage to the environment, were both released to the public last June and August, respectively, for review.
Since then, the town’s EIR consultant, Ascent Environmental, has been responding to the 56 submitted comments to prepare for the final impact statement, while town staff has been finalizing changes to the draft general plan. Both are moving forward concurrently, Gatto said.
“Certainly, there will be things clarified,” she continued. “MAP noted some things, other parties noted some things that definitely warranted clarification. We’ve been taking the time to do that. There’s nothing substantial in the EIR that would require it to be recirculated, which starts over the public outreach and public comment period. We’re not looking at that.”
Truckee Mayor Lindsay Romack, who’s followed the general plan process from both a resident and council member perspective, pointed to the mobility section, which emphasizes ways to reduce automobile dependency, and the density bonus program (a proposed action item to offer additional housing density and financial incentives for developers who create workforce housing units in infill areas) as standout items. She echoed Gatto in that she believes the 2040 General Plan addresses the important needs in the local community.
“It’s never going to be exactly what every single person wants, so at some point you do have to move forward and say, all right, this is really good,” Romack said. “In order to move forward on those action items … we have to adopt the plan. The longer we just toil in ‘could this be a little bit better’ or ‘could that be a little bit better,’ we’re missing the opportunity to really implement some of the really exciting actions that will come after adoption.”
Looking before leaping
The toiling in details to some is a disregard of procedure to others. Glaring deficits in the current plan, as several people the Ink interviewed stated, include definitive timelines and solid accountability.
In a Jan. 26 town council workshop, council members began identifying action items proposed in the draft general plan they want to implement once the final version is adopted. A full list of these action items, available here, sets such time frames as short-, mid-, and long-term, annually, and ongoing. For example, the creation of a transit evacuation guide is a short-term action item; building retrofits for earthquake and landslide protection a midterm one.
There are no specific lengths of time associated with these terms, though Gatto said, “Anything prioritized as short-term will be viewed as a higher priority (or at least a more immediate one). There are a number of action items that are longer-term, and it’s not to say they aren’t a priority, but some are decently complex and we recognize the amount of work that will be required for those.”
MAP sees the draft impact report created by Ascent Environmental as out of compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act. The state law requires public agencies to examine environmental effects of projects, an invitation to “look before they leap,” as the CEQA website states it. In the case where impacts are significant, EIRs are required.
“We’re looking for the priorities to be stated in the general plan, and we had hoped for a CEQA document to fully analyze the associated impacts that would come with Truckee 2040,” said Alexis Ollar, MAP executive director. “The town hasn’t done that … I think if the town wants to show leadership on the goals and actions to come out of Truckee 2040, [the list of action items] would have real priorities and timelines that the community can understand, look forward to and count on, otherwise it is another list in another document to sit on a shelf.”
MAP also highlights a novel concept being used by the town as not cutting the mustard. The 2040 General Plan as currently proposed operates as a self-mitigating plan, meaning it includes policies and programs designed to minimize environmental impacts.
Self-mitigating plans are a newer concept, though the genesis is unclear. An example in the general plan of self-mitigation is the mobility element’s policies and action items, many of which are focused on reducing the town’s vehicle miles traveled. That reduction in VMT is tied to town council’s sustainability/climate change priorities and recently established VMT thresholds.
Though such goals are in writing, the town hasn’t been explicitly clear on how progress will be monitored after adopting the general plan.
“They said that they were still figuring it out, that there would be some sort of matrix or some sort of accounting mechanism that they had yet to develop,” Heidrich said. “It’s unsettling when we’re going into final adoption dates and you don’t actually even know how you’re going to be monitoring your progress toward implementing this.”
“The Town of Truckee is not the only California jurisdiction that has gone [the self-mitigating] route, but it really hasn’t been tested,” Heidrich explained. “There’s no case law kind of saying how legal it is or not legal. But you’re making this contention that every policy that there could possibly be to mitigate any impacts is already in the plan. We can very clearly see that that’s just not true.”
One of the top priorities in the region currently is workforce housing, a topic Ollar says the community called for from the beginning of the general plan update process, but that hasn’t been prioritized in the draft 2040 plan.
“We’re going to hear that that’s a part of the 300 action items; they’re trying to do all the things that they want to do,” Ollar said. “But we still don’t even have any prioritization. We don’t even have any timeframes.”
CATT as an organization is whistling a similar tune regarding a lack of workforce housing action, which, as Flora pointed out, “any reasonable person that knows those two organizations [MAP and CATT], if the two of them are on the same page [it’s] probably something that someone should be paying attention to.” MAP is known for typically questioning development while CATT often advocates for the support of the building and housing industry.
Also of concern to CATT is the Climate Action Plan, another of the eight elements, this one focusing on the town consuming fully renewable energy by 2050 by bumping up the use of electricity, reducing energy consumption, increasing alternative transportation, and promoting a more sustainable future. Flora, who does not currently represent the organization, feels the town is again leaping before looking. MAP expressed concern over a “hasty approach” to climate change as well.
“I would offer that this is largely council-driven, or a couple-members-of-council-driven rush toward electrification without, in my view, thinking through all the potential implications, ramifications, and lack of infrastructure,” Flora said. “I’m all on board with the concept of electrification, but we are just not there yet functionally, and there’s a lot within the CAP that speaks to eliminating fossil fuels or drastically reducing or going above and beyond.”
He referenced a July 2022 letter from CATT to the town council that pointed out specific concerns for the CAP: goals known as CAP-7, increasing energy efficiency in existing developments, and CAP-8, promoting/incentivizing electrification and energy efficiency in future development.
“Given the climate in Truckee, numerous, often lengthy power outages occur in winter months when temperatures are regularly lower than 20°F and with the ever-increasing wildfire conditions which trigger unplanned outages in the summer,” the letter stated, “the elimination or substantial reduction of natural gas as a source of heat, water heat, and cooking fuel is a direct threat to the health, life, and safety of town residents until the technology exists to provide affordable, reliable electricity and battery backup to every resident.”
Romack said council remains in the information-gathering stage of energy efficiency and reach codes (laws establishing higher energy performance standards than what’s required by the state). “Personally, I’m not going to push something forward if we’re not prepared for it,” she added.
The heart of CEQA is to scrutinize potential impacts of a given plan and to do so, one must consider all the factors. The Tahoe Forest Hospital District has been calling attention to the fact that the town’s draft general plan does not include analysis of the healthcare system’s new master plan, which is an effort to expand services and capacity through additional facilities and parking structures. The district informed the town of its intent to create a 30-year master plan nearly four years ago. When invited by the town to participate in the general plan process and incorporate the hospital master plan, Gatto said TFHD declined — an action district staff told Moonshine Ink they do not recall.
The hospital district submitted a formal application for its master plan to the town in March 2022. When it was noted that the hospital’s proposed expansion was not included in the draft EIR nor the general plan, TFH CEO Harry Weis issued a formal comment in September 2022.
“The 2040 General Plan as proposed will make it impossible for TFHD to implement its long-term vision for the campus, and TFHD will have to direct its growth elsewhere in order to provide adequate healthcare capacity to the region,” Weis wrote.
Gatto explained timing was the reason for not including TFHD’s plan: “Their actual master plan wasn’t submitted until fairly late in our own process. As part of their comments on the EIR, they again asked to be included in the general plan, which at that point we said, we are already so far along in the general plan that we don’t really have a realistic way to do that.”
MAP argues that the exclusion of TFHD’s master plan in the 2040 General Plan as ignoring one of the largest stakeholders in a major corridor.
“Under CEQA, you have to consider all reasonably foreseeable projects, and this was totally reasonably foreseeable,” Heidrich said. “We’ve known about it for such a long time. Even though your timing didn’t match up, maybe you should have made it match up, maybe you should have worked with them better and figured out a way for that to align.”
Looking ahead to spring
Town staff expects to wrap up both draft documents and release them to the public by a few weeks prior to the March 21 planning commission meeting, Gatto said, when they’ll be posted at truckee2040.com. From there, community members will have time to review everything and formulate final comments.
On the note of comments on the process since November 2018, Gatto said, “I know it’s viewed as criticisms by many, but personally, I’m not bothered by that because these are people that deeply care about Truckee.”
Romack says she’s hopeful the plan will be adopted at the April 11 council meeting. She commended town staff for the work that’s been put into getting this far and acknowledged that lessons have been learned along the way.
“I will admit our first one or two workshops with the planning commission and council this past summer, spring, were a little clunky,” she said. “I think it was, staff is new to this process, council is new to this process, some community members are new to the process. Could staff have done better in some areas and done certain things differently? Yes. But I think every time you do something you should learn from it and learn how to do better.”
For those not ready for the process to be done, questions remain.
“We are aware that many of the CEQA issues that we have brought to light will not be remedied in the final EIR, which would then render the analysis still inadequate in our opinion,” Ollar stated, adding that if those deficiencies remain upon release of the final documents, the possibility of taking a legal route to combat the lack of compliance will be under discussion.
General plans are meant to be guiding documents for a future that residents of a community wish to experience. MAP sees key promises from the 2025 General Plan still lingering, and the nonprofit is concerned 2040 promises will follow the same path.
“General plans are often pie in the sky. What do we wish we could do sometime down the road?” Heidrich reflected. “And then you see those policies never actually get implemented. Here we are looking at the 2025 General Plan and updating that, and there are so many policies that never were implemented. So many programs that were never created. You’re saying that you’re going to use those policies to mitigate impacts when we know that there’s a very high likelihood that they will never actually be. We’ll never see those come to fruition.”