The congestion faced last summer in the Tahoe Basin didn’t come out of left field. The very same challenges that had touched locals’ lives before — traffic, parking, trash and litter, housing availability — are staples in tourism-centered towns across the globe, surely, and definitely around the lake.
“These are issues that we all know and have been working on for quite some time,” said Erin Casey, principal management analyst at Placer County’s Tahoe office. “But I think the tolerance for it was much less than it had been previously.”
That low tolerance, of course, stemmed from pandemic-inspired travel and relocation. People within driving distance came in droves to physically distance in world-famous nature.
Looming virus concerns plus out-of-towner crowds resulted in some very uncomfortable and outspoken locals. “It’s like the Fourth of July every day,” Incline Village resident Jim Mapes told Moonshine Ink last August.
Cindy Gustafson, supervisor for Placer’s district five (which covers the north and west shores of Lake Tahoe), said that even with decades of public service under her belt, she’d never seen the community so divided.
“There were people who wanted checkpoints,” she explained. “‘Don’t let anybody off Interstate 80. Make them keep going or turn around. What could we do to just [have] everybody stay home? What’s an essential worker? What’s an essential activity for travel? Do people have the right to be in their vacation home, to quarantine in their vacation home versus being in their primary home?’ There was a lot of really divisive language and frustration.”
A brainchild of Casey’s aimed to move the needle on addressing the high tension between frustrated residents and county officials: bring in a third party to mediate conversations between the two. Thus, during the latter months of 2020 a series of facilitated discussions took place about the county’s handling of the pandemic in Tahoe, top-of-mind concerns for locals, and what solutions could be carried out in a timely fashion.
For some, the slew of meetings proved educational; others, however, say they continue to see the county and tourism agencies treating Tahoe like a cash cow.
Even so, several ideas that came from the mediation are already being put into place in Placer — in January, the board of supervisors adopted an ordinance amendment revising Tahoe-area trash collection residential exemptions to combat overuse of public trash receptacles — with other measures to be implemented in coming months.
At the March 9 board meeting, Casey recommended multiple tourism-mitigating projects to the supervisors, concepts that were conceived after the tourism-focused public outreach, in correlation with the recent forming of a North Tahoe Tourism Business Improvement District. The approved programs include the following:
- A pilot project that extends the Downtowner microtransit service in Olympic Valley and Alpine Meadows into Kings Beach, Tahoe City, and along the West Shore. ($450,000)
- Supplemental trash and litter services through a contract with the Clean Tahoe Program, a South Shore-based nonprofit that will provide monitoring and on-call assistance. This will be carried out in addition to Tahoe Truckee Sierra Disposal services. ($150,000)
- Expanded park-and-ride options during winter and summer months. “If we do that in conjunction with microtransit, a person could park their car in Truckee, take the bus into the Basin, move around the North Shore on microtransit at no cost to that person, take the bus back to their vehicle, and never have to drive on [Highways] 267, 89, or 128 in that scenario,” Casey explained to the Ink. ($150,000)
- Crossing guards in Kings Beach’s and Tahoe City’s congested areas — a strategy first put in place last summer. ($140,000)
“These will all be implemented this summer, in fact, if not sooner, by spring,” Casey said. Funding for the projects will come from the transportation and tourism mitigation allocation of $1.2 million from fiscal year 2019/20 Transient Occupancy Tax dollars.
Zephyr Collaboration, a business focused on facilitating discussion around complex issues, was the third party guiding the late-2020 outreach.
Zephyr distributed a public survey, garnering over 600 responses, followed by four virtual focus groups with specific individuals who had been outspoken about the impacts of tourism. It was a balancing act to bring together both sides of the issue in a space where all viewpoints could be expressed comfortably, Casey explained. Business owners, employees, and vocal social media users all attended the meetings.
At the focus groups, Zephyr led conversations about short-term rental operations, trash collection services, litter and waste reduction, as well as parking and transit. Finally, on Dec. 16, a broad community workshop took place, streamed on Facebook Live. The PowerPoint presentation from that meeting can be viewed here.
There were a couple of purposes behind that final event, as Casey described: “One, to share the outcomes from this process and make sure people understood, ‘We know your concerns, we’re hearing you, and this process and this survey and these focus groups have further supported that.’ But we also want to transition into a place where we’re talking about solutions. That workshop was intended to share results from the process, but then help everyone make this transition into problem solving.”
Laura Read, Tahoe City resident and creator of the Facebook page Tahoe in Balance, which has documented effects of tourists’ negative impacts and how they can be stopped, attended multiple Zephyr-mediated meetings. Read was very positive in her takeaways, expressing thanks to Gustafson and county staff for their willingness to talk about the problems “as a result of overtourism,” as she described in an email.
“They’ve put in a lot of work to help the public play more of a role in the county’s decision-making,” she continued. “The facts and figures they share in their graphs and charts help me to understand the data they’ve collected and to see that it’s essential now more than ever to control the effects of overtourism. It’s so much more useful to make decisions using data and facts rather than rumor and innuendo.”
Through Tahoe in Balance, Read has shared her concerns around garbage service, posting photos of overflowing dumpsters since August 2020. During the Zephyr mediation series, the county identified that some Tahoe homeowners were claiming trash exemption (meaning they weren’t occupying their property for a month or longer and therefore didn’t need refuse pick-up) but still utilized waste management services.
“The way in which they were doing that was transporting their residential trash into our trash bins in the downtown areas, which then reduced the capacity in those areas,” Casey said, referring to the aforementioned January 2021 board decision for trash exemption parameters. Now, exemptions apply if a property is unoccupied for a full quarter rather than only 30 days. “That was a big issue and we needed to tackle it, so public work staff brought this amendment forward to the board and the board recently approved that change. That was a step taken as a result of all this feedback.”
Cheri Sugal is also a Placer County resident who has been vocalizing her frustrations with overtourism, especially during Covid-19. Sugal was invited to participate in one of the four focus groups hosted by Placer and Zephyr. Contrary to Read’s takeaways, Sugal shared with Moonshine that she still feels major discomfort with the approach.
“My stomach turns every time I listen to the perspective that the county and [the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association] have on tourism and, related, short-term rentals,” she wrote in an email. “Any suggestions or recommendations to limit tourism or short-term rentals for [the] health, safety, [and] general well-being of this community are completely dismissed. Tahoe is simply a cash cow for the county and NLTRA.”
Sugal, who’s lived in Tahoe City and then Kings Beach for a total of 17 years, said that a heavy majority of those she knows have no connection to tourism whatsoever; their jobs are as teachers, doctors, pilots, for example.
“What [the county and NLTRA] are doing is destroying the way of life for the full-time residents here [and] creating huge impacts on the environment for the benefit of an ever-decreasing proportion of the population,” Sugal added. “They continue to have this outdated view that Tahoe is ‘just’ a vacation destination. What happens during all these meetings/workshops is an inherent bias against the majority of residents here for the economic interests of a few.”
Jeff Hentz, CEO of the NLTRA, attended all of the focus groups and the workshop, dubbing the process “a listening tour” for the resort association to hear from community members in all sectors — individuals, businesses, nonprofits, and others. The NLTRA was invited by the county to participate in the Zephyr mediation as a partner, and the connection between local concerns and tourism was easy to make for Hentz and his staff.
“We’re a tourism-based economy, so yes, a lot of everything starts and ends with tourism,” Hentz said. “I don’t want to say that was a central theme, but it was really rooted on the tourism side, where some of these challenges are coming from. If it’s traffic-related, transportation-related, … workforce-related, [or] trash-related issues. Most of it revolves around tourism being the centerpiece of that. Or the catalyst of that.”
Casey reiterated that these overtourism issues existed well before the emergence of Covid-19, but that the pandemic provided momentum to address them.
“It definitely helped us to really understand the magnitude of the issue and the level of concern and how high we should prioritize [overtourism mitigation] among other areas,” she said. “I would say that that process definitely lent itself and pushed us into a place where we’re moving forward more quickly to solve these issues.”