Drive by the recently completed Domus affordable housing project in downtown Kings Beach, and you will see a smattering of newly planted, small aspen trees in front of the multi-story building. It is these trees, or rather the lack of much larger, conifer trees, that has caused an uproar in the Kings Beach community and beyond.

Residents say the developer sold the project to the public — which agreed to concessions in order to bring much-needed affordable housing to Kings Beach — on the basis that there would be adequate screening of the hefty building. But Placer County, which recently approved the landscaping despite public outcry, says that the developer satisfied the original landscape plan. At the root of the problem is the artistic rendering of the building, which many residents assumed the finished development would look like. The rendering showed large conifer trees screening the building. The approved landscape plan, on the other hand, only called for aspens. This misunderstanding could have lasting impacts — members of the community say they have lost trust in their public officials, a sentiment that could affect the county’s community update plan process currently underway in Tahoe.

Where Are the Trees?

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The Domus Development affordable housing project is a $33 million development that was funded by a combination of private and public investment. The project includes five locations in Kings Beach, the largest and most high profile of which is the 40-unit, four-story building on the corner of Chipmunk and Highway 28 at the entrance to Kings Beach. In September, the county signed off on the building’s landscaping and issued a temporary certificate of occupancy. The building is now fully occupied.

Dave Polivy, who lives and owns a business in Kings Beach, was a member of the North Tahoe Regional Advisory Council when it approved the Domus project in 2009. He said he is disappointed in the end result.

“We were all interested in seeing affordable housing through,” he said. “We allowed concessions to be made, but we still had expectations that the project would be built as designed.”

The concessions Polivy is talking about is the county and Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s decision to let the developer build higher and bigger than normally allowed under code in order to make the project economically viable. While regulations limit building height to 33 feet for multi-family units and 25 percent density (18 units per acre) for affordable housing, Domus was allowed to build up to 48-feet for the Chipmunk project, and received a code amendment for 100 percent density allowance, enabling it to construct 40 units on the one-and-half acre site. In exchange, Polivy said that Domus promised to screen the building with large trees, as exhibited in the artistic rendering that was shown at public meetings.

“What we have now is minimal, inconsistent, inadequate, and a generally very poor attempt at working with the community on this issue,” Polivy said. “To remove mature trees and replace with spindly trees is not acceptable.”

Zach Hymanson, a member of NTRAC since 2009, agreed that the existing landscaping is different than what he had expected.

“We knew it was going to be a big building, but it is very different in character from what is there,” he said. “We were shown architectural drawings that showed fully mature trees. From what we were shown, there is clearly a different outcome.”

Therein lies the problem. According to Placer County, even though the artistic rendering of the project showed mature pine trees, the original landscaping plan — which was approved by the Kings Beach Area Design Review Committee, the Placer County Planning Commission, the TRPA, and the Placer County Board of Supervisors — did not include pine trees.

“Conifer trees were not on the plan; it called for aspens,” said Placer County Supervising Planner Allen Breuch. “I have to emphasize that it was just an artistic rendering, not an approved landscape plan.”

Placer County Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery understands that residents feel misled by the artist rendering, on which many people based their support of the project.

“I’ve seen it, and I understand their frustration — it’s not what we got, but it’s what we approved,” she said. “The approved specific landscape plan is nothing like what was in the rendering … But the bottom line is, they satisfied their obligations.”

Because the apartment complex is now owned by Domus, the county cannot require the developer to do additional landscaping since it is private property.

“In a perfect world, I would have tried to require them to do more,” Montgomery said, “but since they met all their legal requirements, we had no leverage but to give them their certificate of occupancy.”

False Advertising?

The county, however, was not immune to public concerns over the building’s lack of screening. Amid complaints, the county brought the project back to the Kings Beach Area Design Review Committee in September to check if the landscaping was in compliance with the plans. The committee, which met on site, found that what had been planted so differed from what the renderings had depicted that it made a motion that the developer should plant four to five 20-foot tall, one-foot-in-diameter evergreen trees, even though the approved plan only called for aspens.

“The rendering does not line up with the finished product on the ground,” said Kevin Drake, chairman of the design review committee, noting that it was the rendering, not the architectural plans, that most of the public looked at to envision the project’s size and scale. “The project was portrayed as a large building tucked in the woods … The look is different from what was promised. We found it reasonable to request that they deliver on that vision.”

But the county disagreed. Although Drake called the aspens that were planted “a far cry from the artistic rendering,” which showed 25-foot tall pine trees, the county argues that, with time, the aspens will grow to shield the building.

“The artist’s rendering shows mature landscaping, what it will look like in 10 to 15 years,” said Michael Johnson, director of Placer County’s Community Development Resource Agency, which oversees the planning department. “It’s not what it looks like on day one, but after 10 years. It’s typical that a developer provides an artist rendering of what it will look like in the future.”
Johnson directed planning staff to green light the Domus landscaping.

“What was built in the field is what was originally approved,” he said. “They have complied with the conditions of approval for the landscape plan.”

The TRPA is waiting for the developer to ask for a final inspection before it signs off on the building, which it expects Domus to do in the spring. The agency is holding a $71,000 security deposit that it returns once it’s made a finding that the building is in compliance.

“The TRPA does not expect projects to have mature vegetation upon final inspection,” wrote TRPA spokesman Jeff Cowen in an email. “Sometimes the screening value takes a while to establish, but we are sensitive to the nature of this project and the concerns of the community and will evaluate the vegetation closely when requested.”

Feeling Disempowered

The current landscaping differs from the plan in two ways, however. During construction, three mature pine trees were damaged and had to be removed. One, a 26-inch Jeffrey pine, had to be taken out because of changes to the detention basin. When higher ground water than expected was discovered, the developers had to make the detention basin wider instead of deeper, which took up more of the front landscaping area. The pine tree was removed because it would not have survived with high water levels in the spring. It was replaced with a three-foot pine tree in another location.

While changes during construction are common, Hymanson said this alteration was significant enough that it should have been brought to the attention of the public sooner.

“I understand things happen during construction, but there was a failure along the way to recognize emerging landscape issues,” he said. “It’s my fundamental belief that the footprint of the building is too big for the space they have.”

People are also questioning why the design review committee’s suggestion was not heeded by the county, when it’s the committee’s job to represent the Kings Beach area. One committee member even considered resigning over the issue.

“It’s frustrating when you are volunteering your time to provide input and it doesn’t get honored,” Drake said.

Former NTRAC member Polivy shared Drake’s feelings of disempowerment by Auburn.

“NTRAC was told they are the voice for local discourse, but what kind of voice, if they are overruled by the planning director?” he said. “Why make us go through the review process and public feedback if it never gets incorporated?”

This loss of public trust in the county could affect not only future affordable housing projects, but also Placer County’s Tahoe Basin Community Plan Update process. Begun this fall, the plan will set the guidelines for land use development in the North Shore for the next 20 years.

“What protections do we have if the county is not advocating for the community?” asked NTRAC member Hymanson. “The county has so reduced trust with the community that it will make it harder to do things in the future.”

Supervisor Montgomery said that while the county has to do a better job of communicating with the public about future projects, it’s key not to lose sight of what’s important

“The most important thing is we got people out of sub-standard housing and into clean, dry, well-lighted housing,” she said.

Emilio Vaca, a member of NTRAC and the former head of the North Tahoe Family Resource Center, which supported the Domus project, echoed Montgomery’s statement.

“Don’t get stuck on the tree,” he said. “Get stuck on the fact that people have adequate housing. Which is more important?”

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Author

  • Melissa Siig

    Melissa Siig ditched international politics in Washington, D.C. in 2001 to move to Tahoe, where she quickly found her true calling — journalism. She has written for regional and national publications, and enjoys writing about community issues and quirky human interest stories. When not at her keyboard, she is busy wrangling her three children, co-running Tahoe Art Haus & Cinema, or playing outside.

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