A package of proposed amendments to the Tahoe Basin Area Plan aims to kickstart economies in Tahoe City, Kings Beach, and other area communities.
As the plan heads into the approval process, familiar contention has surfaced, that between economic stimulus versus protecting resources. Some argue that town centers need to be redeveloped and reinvested in, pointing to no new hotels constructed since the 1960s and a dearth of new projects since 2017 because of the area plan’s (and for larger projects, TRPA’s regional plan’s) process. Others are concerned that making it less complicated for developers to build will result in a rapid influx of visitors, a loss of lake views due to increasing height for proposed buildings, and environmental impacts.
TBAP is Placer County’s piece of the pie in the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s Lake Tahoe Regional Plan, which, since 2012, has guided development, planning, restoration, and more in the Basin. There are six area plans total under the regional plan. TBAP, adopted in 2016/17, was created to address policies, development and design standards, permit requirements, and more in Placer’s unincorporated eastern edges.
“[The area plan] was intended to focus redevelopment in our town centers,” said Crystal Jacobsen, deputy director of the county’s Community Development Resource Agency in Tahoe City. “What we haven’t seen is any reinvestment in the town centers since that time. It’s hard to do business redevelopment business in the Basin … We have heard from the business community, development community, that the development standards and the requirements in the TBAP are burdensome and complex and costly.”
Any changes made to TBAP must be approved by the Placer County Board of Supervisors and TRPA’s board. On Nov. 30, Placer County staff will go before the North Tahoe Regional Advisory Committee (NTRAC) to seek a recommendation for approval, the first formal action on the matter. From there, staff will present to Placer’s planning commission and TRPA’s Regional Plan Implementation Committee in December, then to the Placer County Board of Supervisors on Jan. 24, 2023. There is no specific date yet for a decision by TRPA’s board. Organizations in support of the proposed changes include Tahoe Prosperity Center, Tahoe City Downtown Association, North Tahoe Business Association, and the North Tahoe Resort Association.
Placer’s TBAP contains a policy document (broad in nature and expressing a vision for the Basin) and an implementing regulations document (nuts and bolts for developing on a property). Suggested changes to the policy document include streamlining the permit process for mixed-use projects in town centers; relocation of industrial and public utility land uses to outside town centers; simplify the redevelopment of aging lodging structures; and more.
Changes to the regulations document include allowing certain projects in town centers to increase building height by 10% (plus an additional 18% to accommodate chimneys, vents, etc.); reducing or removing parking requirements for residential multi-family units; allowing food trucks and mobile vendors in the town centers on public sideways and paths; and more.
All proposed amendments, including changes, can be read here.
Megan Chillemi is a Kings Beach resident and member of the NTRAC board. She said the community is divided over the amendments and shared with Moonshine what she’s been hearing from community members: “Most of all, [there is] great concern that increases in height with four-story buildings or over 56 feet on the lakeside in the town centers will block the scenic viewpoints to Lake Tahoe and destroy the towns’ characters.”
There are those who applaud the county for taking these actions, Chillemi continued, but there’s concern about “impacts on the infrastructure, including roads, emergency egress, water, etc., as well as future impacts on Lake Tahoe’s clarity.”
A 50-year resident of North Tahoe, Ann Nichols is opposed to the package of proposals on the basis that they “create unlimited possibilities for more development.” The same approach continues to be applied to the problem of a decreasing full-time resident population and loss of workforce: more big development. As ever, it won’t work, she said.
“We don’t need a kickstart,” she said. “We need a fresh look. We don’t need the same people — the same people at TRPA, same people on the governing board, same people at BAE, same people at the Prosperity Center — saying the same things that aren’t working … We have a two-lane road. We have infrastructure that can’t be expanded. How many big projects can be handled?”
She continued: “To be sure, Tahoe has serious problems with affordable and workforce housing, but they are not unique to this area. Is it TRPA hubris to think urban planning is the answer? If you wanted more density and development, you’d have a hard time coming up with a better plan.”
Judith Tomese, president of Friends of the West Shore, shared with Moonshine a formal statement on the conservation organization’s concerns: “FOWS does not support the proposed amendments at this time because they aim to increase the residential and visitor populations on the north and west shore without first addressing the existing conditions, recent population and visitation increases, and dangerous traffic jams that pose serious public health and safety concerns, especially with wildfire danger increasing every year.”
At the Oct. 13 NTRAC meeting, what was supposed to be an action item for the committee was switched to an informational-only item so new NTRAC members could hear the presentation without immediately having to approve or deny, Jacobsen said. To increase public awareness of the proposals, NTRAC hosted a public workshop on the TBAP changes on Nov. 9. Between 40 and 50 people attended the workshop in person, with an additional 60 online.
Jacobsen strongly pushed back against fears that the amendments will increase density (or the number of residential or tourist accommodation units) and visitors in North Tahoe.
“There’s allowance standards around like how many units per acre, how many residential units per acre, how much tourist accommodation units per acre — none of that is changing,” she said. “We are bound by the standards that exist today for that. When you talk about increasing density, if you’re adding units, you are adding the capacity for increased visitorship, so all of a sudden, you have a whole lot more folks coming to the region if you’ve got the capacity for it. We are not proposing that at all. We’re maintaining densities all across the board.”
Jacobsen added that under current TBAP and TRPA policies, new developments could increase the number of visitors to the area, even without the proposed amendments. “Right now, people could still come in and redevelop under the existing density. We’re not changing those things. But we do hope to see more of that kind of revitalization that was intended.”
Alex Mourelatos is general manager of his family’s Mourelatos Lakeshore Resort in Tahoe Vista. He has attempted to work through the TBAP and TRPA process twice now for potential developments along Highway 28 which he wanted to turn into residential units. The first project didn’t pencil due to financial constraints, though he glimpsed what navigating TBAP and TRPA codes would be like; the second he walked away from specifically because of the risk associated with such a process.
“A complex entitlement process is a red flag … You have two jurisdictions, each with a set of code that any developer has to comply with, and more importantly, an approval process that requires you often to get dual approvals and therefore causes you often to go back and forth,” Mourelatos said. “As you do that, you come up with inconsistencies with what the local jurisdiction is intending to do inside the context of the planning documents that have been developed and what the TRPA is intent on doing and how they respectively enforce.”
Jacobsen explained that in conversation with would-be Basin developers like Mourelatos, the TRPA’s additional requirements are where the process becomes “complex and costly and burdensome.”
“A lot of the bigger projects, they have to go through both Placer and TRPA. All projects have to meet all of TRPA codes plus the TBAP,” she furthered. “There are some TRPA codes that apply to projects that are not necessarily embedded in our TBAP, and so it’s difficult because they have land use authority in the Basin. So you’ve got two layers of review that a project has to go through sometimes.”
Developers were consulted throughout the process of putting the amendment package together, and Jacobsen says they believe the changes being made will help. Mourelatos echoed that response.
“Many of us are [participating in this process] because we’ve been invested in various projects that have worked and not worked because we believe that there still needs to be an answer, there still needs to be a solution,” he explained. “A lot of us have provided input and spent hours in due diligence trying to determine and communicate what those conflicts are.”
From Nichols’ point of view, big development isn’t the way to create solutions: “More entitlements, more carrots for the developers. More, more, more … I think we need new regulatory agencies. A new philosophy, fresh look. More of the same is not the answer.”
To address housing issues, the proposed amendments bring TBAP into state compliance while making easier the construction of workforce housing, Jacobsen said. Plus, vacation rentals will migrate from residential areas: “As we construct hotels in the town centers, it’ll shift those [short-term rental] uses outside of the neighborhoods and shift lodging into the town centers,” Jacobsen added. “There’s a desire for that.”
She added that TRPA is currently reviewing its own code to address the regional plan’s barriers to workforce housing.
The recommendations for TBAP come out of a number of different studies for Placer County, specifically the Placer County Tahoe Basin Town Center Economic Sustainability Needs Analysis, performed in 2019 by the county and BAE Urban Economics.
“It identified some ways to address the lack of reinvestment that we’re seeing,” Jacobsen explained. “It actually pointed to a number of things, but one of them was that this amendment package, it basically recommended that we look at our policies and our codes in the TBAP to make some refinements, which would help eliminate barriers to that redevelopment.”
Placer County District 5 Supervisor Cindy Gustafson pointed out that adoption of the amendments won’t mean hundreds of new projects are going to crop up. “We might get one or two, and in the context of what those are, maybe three if we’re lucky,” she said. “… We’re not going to see a wholesale change in our communities. That takes decades and decades.”
Others remain skeptical, of the process and unintended consequences.
From Friends of the West Shore, Tomese said the TBAP amendments “are being fast-tracked with very little environmental review or advance public notice.”
Nichols stated she would support an economic kickstart in North Tahoe “if it doesn’t negatively impact our environment.”
Despite the challenges, there are projects that are going through the planning process — just not as many as Jacobsen said the county wants to see. Two projects in the eastern Placer pipeline that have not gone vertical yet are Tahoe City Lodge, the first new resort development in over 50 years, which is slated to break ground next spring on its 65 condominiums, 40 hotel guest rooms, as well as a restaurant and bar, expected to wrap up winter 2024/25; and Boatworks at Tahoe, which is undergoing environmental review to construct an 80- to 85-unit lakefront hotel, 31 residential condominium units branded with the hotel, and 8,000 square feet of commercial retail space along North Lake Boulevard/State Highway 28. View the map below for a full list of development projects in eastern Placer undergoing planning.
Chillemi is strongly encouraging community members to participate in the process of providing feedback about the amendments (and Placer County eastern Tahoe projects in general). “These changes chart the course for redevelopment and development on the North Shore for decades,” she explained. “Attend NTRAC and planning commission meetings as various North Shore projects are brought up for discussion and information, and then for approval.”
For information about the Nov. 30 NTRAC meeting, click here.