“There’s no such thing as a good neighbor to a sewer plant.”

The catchphrase was bandied around a couple of times during a late June Tahoe-Truckee Sanitation Agency board meeting with a common recognition: Proximity to a wastewater treatment plant brings sight, smell, and safety concerns.

The understanding, however, bears a new weight locally. As a streamlined disinfection process is being implemented by TTSA, the agency’s safety bubble across 900-plus acres out in Martis Valley could potentially shrink. And as workforce housing and river revitalization opportunities are sought after in the region, relocating existing commercial or light industrial structures to a TTSA-relinquished receiver spot could leave behind plots of land picture-perfect for projects. Increased safety begets ideal industrial parcels begets workforce housing and revitalization sites.


It’s a complex land swap — one in the works since the ’90s and thus far built on nothing but good intentions. But forward progress is happening.

On June 28, the Truckee Tahoe Airport District finalized a four-year-old real property exchange agreement with TTSA, swapping a 68-acre parcel for two parcels totaling 67 acres.

“I feel very strongly that the land that we’re swapping them for is so much more valuable to us, and the 40 acres [the valuable part of the 68-acre parcel] is so much more valuable to them,” said Kat Rohlf, board president for TTAD, of the new airport sites. “I think we’re both making a move that benefits our agencies in a really positive way.”

The hope of multiple airport board members and area constituents is that the valued acreage — its estimated worth was $1.8 million in 2022 — now in TTSA’s hands will be part of the land the agency ultimately chooses to let go.

As the TTSA considers moving forward in its assessment of whether the land could be opened up for other uses, airport board member David Diamond, a strong proponent of relocating industrial uses to such a receiver site, referred to “the spirit of agency cooperation” during the June airport meeting. “I think this is an opportunity to extend trust to TTSA that they will move forward with their consideration of surplussing property,” he said.

ON PAPER: At the end of June, three parcels were involved in a real estate exchange agreement between TTSA and TTAD. Plots A and C went from TTSA to the airport; plot B from the airport to TTSA. Courtesy map

Being smart and safe

One of the key questions people are asking — just how much land could TTSA part with? — won’t be answered until a risk assessment is conducted by the agency. Movement is already underway: At the July 19 TTSA board meeting, staff is expected to present to the board a scope of work and approximate budget amount to hire a consultant to conduct a risk analysis.

Even a year ago, the idea of proceeding with a risk assessment to determine if land could be sloughed off and potentially developed upon wasn’t fathomable. The change? For just over four months now, TTSA has operated a wastewater disinfection process that yields a lower risk of a significant industrial accident happening.

“We are fully on sodium hypochlorite for disinfection, which is basically a liquid form of bleach,” General Manager Richard Pallante explained. “It’s similar to household bleach, it’s just a stronger solution. The chlorine facility remains functional as a backup if we had to go back to that process. But our intent is not to go backwards.”

The process will operate for a full year to account for changes in temperature and flows before it’s considered permanent.

“Even outside of all of the discussions with surplus land and all that, this is a big improvement for employee safety, as well as the safety of the community,” Pallante added.

Still, TTSA needs to gauge its land holdings compared to wastewater treatment needs and potential public impacts.

“What we want to understand better is if land development occurs closer to the plant than it currently is, how does that increase or not increase risk to the general public?” said TTSA Board President Dan Wilkins.

Another important factor to consider is California’s Surplus Land Act, which “requires local agencies to complete certain procedures before disposing of surplus real property by sale or long-term lease,” cites a memo created by TTSA’s legal counsel, Andrew Ramos. “The stated purpose of the act is to make surplus public property available for affordable housing and open space purposes before it is made available for other uses.”

Such a move gives board members like Wilkins pause: “We need to be smart about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it because we could inadvertently go through a process, declare land to be surplus at TTSA, and then find ourselves in a position where housing developers from anywhere in the state effectively come in and try to take a first right of refusal on the land that we’re trying to sell.”

“I think this is an opportunity to extend trust to TTSA that they will move forward with their consideration of surplussing property.”

~ David Diamond, airport board member

Part of the sanitation agency’s determination of next steps will be to understand whether or not potential surplus land would qualify as exempt from the Surplus Land Act. Currently, there are four exemptions that could be applied to TTSA’s situation: one, future uses of the excess land are restricted due to the adjacent special district’s work/operations; two, an exchange of property (such as with the airport district); three, transference to another agency or tribe for that jurisdiction’s use; and four, the land is infeasible for housing.

“I believe that the airport has concerns regarding residential development near the airport,” Wilkins wrote in an email and Rohlf later confirmed. “I do not think it would be appropriate for TTSA to acquire land from the airport and then turn around and put housing on it if the airport, as a neighbor and prior landowner, had concerns with that occurring. … In addition, residential uses are far less compatible with being in close proximity to sewer plants than industrial uses.”

Town of Truckee Councilmember Jan Zabriskie echoed Wilkins’ thoughts about property practicality on that site: “Development on Joerger Drive [which provides access to the property in question] would be a form of sprawl. … The traffic impacts and the greenhouse gas impacts would be greater out along Joerger Drive. … I see that land as being less attractive for housing for a number of reasons, and that’s part of the reason for looking at it as industrial. There seems to be a general consensus that it’s appropriate for industry, not retail or housing. I think it’s because of the distance [from other services], proximity to sewage, and proximity to the airport. Otherwise, it’s flat land. We love flat land. It’s very scarce now.”

Should the TTSA board ultimately decide to lease or sell land, Pallante said the money would be used to fund the agency’s capital improvement plan, “which then ends up ultimately reflecting in the rates charged to the constituents.”

Untapped potential

The attractive 68 acres now owned by TTSA has a few parties interested in courtship. The Truckee Donner Public Utility District could move its Donner Pass Road base facility; Truckee Fire Protection District is seeking a fire training facility location; and the Truckee-Donner Recreation and Park District could use space for future ball fields.

“If you look at the land that’s out there, it’s perfect,” the airport district’s Diamond said. “You’ve got very, very easy freeway access out there. You’re not in the middle of neighborhoods. You could run a 24-hour operation if you wanted to and probably nobody would care. And maybe for some people, the bigger incentive is that you’re no longer in the Town of Truckee, so you’re not potentially hindered by any town regulations or permitting issues or such because you’re in unincorporated Nevada County.”

Another avenue for potential housing projects could come from TDPUD’s location on Donner Pass Road. If the agency were to move out to TTSA’s plot, a central parcel close to transit, grocery, and hospital services would be freed up. That said, the PUD is not involved in any active land swap discussions, per Steven Poncelet, public information and strategic affairs director.

“In the town’s recently adopted general plan, they do identify the current TDPUD HQ (11570 Donner Pass Rd.) as a target for relocation based on the town’s plans for our current location,” he wrote in an email. “TDPUD is open to a relocation, but any move needs to be for the benefit of our customers and community. Given this backdrop, we are in early exploratory discussions with a few possible locations but have nothing concrete to report.”

An additional and arguably more top-of-mind general plan-related opportunity is to incentivize industrial enterprises to relocate off West River Street to enhance and activate the Truckee River. The town recently created a River Revitalization Steering Committee (a modern version of the mid-2000s river revitalization committee that only partly succeeded, according to Councilmember Zabriskie), that will do just that, and more.

“We’re going to have about a 12-member committee that’s going to be brainstorming, how do we want the river frontage to look essentially on both sides of the West River road and East River road between the railroad tracks and river,” said Zabriskie, who’s on the committee. “How do we want that to look and how are we gonna make it happen? And it’s going to mean doing workshops again, getting public input, property owner input, business input, environmental input, all the interest groups.”

Town manager Jen Callaway informed Moonshine that “the R2SC membership has three potential receiver-site seats who will serve as representatives from the airport, TTSA, and TDPUD (therefore, these agencies have potential sites), and there may be other potential private properties that will be identified during the committee’s research process.”

Jan Holan is part of the committee. Holan owns 8 acres on West River Street and hopes it will one day be used for a co-housing neighborhood. Currently, however, he’s renting to light industrial users — three welders.

“A lot of people would love to start their small custom manufacturing business, whether it’s a van-building business or somebody making skis or who knows what,” Holan said. “A fair amount just don’t have any place to go that’s reasonably affordable or even available. I mean, the vacancy rate on these commercial and industrial spaces, the few that we have in Truckee is really incredibly low.”

Holan and other members of the steering committee, which includes representatives from TTSA and TTAD, will consider potential incentives and costs involved with finding receiver sites for industrial businesses to move to.

At the same time, Holan cautions against Pollyanna visions. “It’s much cheaper to rent a rundown shop with crappy parking and a rundown commercial building than it is a brand-new building, regardless of how many subsidies or incentives there are,” he said. “We shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that even if the land is next to free, if you build commercial/light industrial space, it’s gonna be expensive space because it just costs a lot to build right now.”

The Town of Truckee, Zabriskie added, is not in a position to purchase land, even as appealing as the TTSA property could be. “We’re really only talking about land use designations and zoning in terms of what the town can put in,” he said.

The River Revitalization Steering Committee’s first meeting is expected to happen this summer, though no date had been established at press deadline.

While many legal and safety hurdles will need to be navigated, Wilkins said TTSA is aware how important timeliness is. “We’re not looking to be the hold-up in the community decision-making process,” he furthered, later adding, “We’re trying to run parallel to that community conversation with the information we need.”

Good intentions are not ‘ironclad’

There’s also the possibility that the sanitation agency decides to not give up land. At the June 28 airport board meeting, director Mary Hetherington cautioned against finalizing the land exchange agreement now and instead suggested waiting until “an ironclad legal agreement, a certainty clause, can be inserted into the trade such that the land will be made available as a receiver site for commercial and industrial users.” Hetherington was the sole no vote in the airport’s decision to finalize the exchange.

“I absolutely believe the entire region will benefit from moving commercial and industrial entities off of the Truckee River,” she said during director comment, adding, “We owe the taxpayers and the public the certainty that this … parcel will be made available as a receiver site so that entities on the river corridor have a site to move to and the acreage along West River Street becomes available for our very much needed affordable housing.”

What we want to understand better is if land development occurs closer to the plant than it currently is, how does that increase or not increase risk to the general public?”

  ~ TTSA Board President Dan Wilkins

Rohlf countered Hetherington’s remarks by pointing out that the airport is not the right agency to involve itself in the real estate process. “I think that there are a lot of really well-meaning, forward-thinking public servants in a lot of different agencies, and I feel like working well with those other agencies gets us further along to benefit the community than breaking a contract with somebody we’ve already signed a contract with or making promises that we really don’t have the bandwidth to fulfill,” she said.

“We do care about [possible relocation of industrial/commercial],” Rohlf added, “we just don’t think that we are the right agency to do it.”

The newly acquired airport acreage will exist as runway safety buffers. There’s no current plan for development on the parcels.

Understanding that the TTSA board must first act in the best interest of its mission and vision, Zabriskie said he’s also placing his trust in knowing the TTSA board directors are “longtime local residents who volunteered for those positions because they care about our community. … I don’t see any self-interest there. … I trust that that board would act in what it believed to be in the best interest of the community.”

Pallante, TTSA’s general manager, recognizes the goodwill being extended to his agency. “It just seems like there’s some really nice collaboration that’s starting to develop amongst the agencies,” he said.


  • Alex Hoeft

    Alex Hoeft joined Moonshine staff in May 2019, happy to return to the world of journalism after a few years in community outreach. She has both her bachelor's and Master's in journalism, from Brigham Young University and University of Nevada, Reno, respectively. When she's not journalism-ing, she's wrangling her toddler or reading a book — or doing both at the same time.

Previous articleRepresentation Matters
Next articleEnhancing Water Quality in Kings Beach; Incorporation Petition Delayed; More