A few months after Karen Smith’s neighbors moved in next door to the house she rents along the Truckee River on Riverside Drive, she began noticing landscaping work that worried her. According to Smith, in the late fall of 2020, her neighbors began digging up earth near the river’s edge, cutting down trees, moving boulders, dumping bags of soil and fertilizer near the water line to level off the ground, and installing grass in order to create an outdoor event space.
“I was really startled. We all care about rivers. I was like, ‘Man, this is crazy.’ If we have a high snow year, this will all wash down into the river and onto my property,” said Smith, who asked that her real name not be used because of potential litigation. “Eight workers were taking out trees, cutting up roots, putting soil in, and there were trucks of rocks leaving. It was so sad.”
Smith and her landlord have spent months writing emails and making phone calls in an effort to get the Town of Truckee, the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Army Corps of Engineers, and even U.S. Fish and Wildlife to stop the neighbor’s construction project, which was not permitted and violates several of the agencies’ ordinances, including grading after mid-October. Yet Smith and her landlord have both been frustrated with the slow pace of enforcement.
“No one was able to stop them in time,” Smith said. “I feel like they are doing their best, but a lack of resources and especially with the massive influx of people coming from outside of mountain culture, there needs to be a lot more education and resources. It seems like everyone cares, but they are not able to react fast enough. It’s too little too late. The whole thing was built by the time they reacted.”
Code compliance often appears slow and cumbersome to the public, but the slow progression is by design, say public agency officials. The overarching goal of the six agencies Moonshine Ink spoke with is to fix the problem, not to punish violators unless the problem threatens the environment or life safety. This philosophy creates a process that to many observers does not act fast enough to stop bad actors, but agency officials say a gentle nudge rather than a slap gets the best results without spending limited staff time and money on lengthy legal battles. But to people complaining about problem properties, action by these code enforcers often comes too late, prompting community members to question if local agencies are really doing enough to stop violators who threaten our environment and fire safety.
Town of Truckee
Like most agencies and municipalities, the Town of Truckee’s code compliance is complaint driven. At any one time, the town has about 100 to 150 complaints in the queue, according to Community Development Director Denyelle Nishimori, with the main complaint being about garbage. The town has one full-time and one part-time code compliance officer, and another devoted to short-term rentals. The town prioritizes complaints that have to do with life safety and community issues, such as water quality.
The first step for town staff when they receive a complaint is to contact the property owners to find out if they were aware of the regulations. For something like unpermitted grading in a floodplain, the town and the property owners develop a plan to fix the issue. Although Nishimori said she could not discuss an active code case like the one on Riverside Drive, she gave an example of a property that had done unpermitted grading along Alder Creek to create a wedding site. The town and Lahontan required the property owners to take out the grass and revegetate the area and pay for a grading permit.
The town has a variety of tools at its disposal, everything from fines (which start at $100) to notice of violations (which creates a title restriction), to taking people to court.
“We usually say ‘Here is the process.’ We give lots of advance warning. It can go to daily fines but we haven’t gotten past $500 a day before we get quick compliance,” Nishimori said. “The process is probably slower than what people would like to see. But the philosophy of the town is that we work toward compliance versus what other jurisdictions do, which is no-tolerance code enforcement work.”
Nishimori admits that the code compliance department does not have the capacity for outreach. If the community wanted the town to be more proactive with educating residents about regulations, that would take a vote by the town council and require additional funding.
“Our approach is to support the community,” she said. “A lot of times people do things without knowing because they don’t know the development code or they lived somewhere else where that was okay. We haven’t got to the point where the council has said we want you to be more aggressive in your approach.”
Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board
Lahontan’s Basin Plan, the water quality protection plan for the region, does not allow the dischargement of waste or certain types of activities, like developing a wedding site, within the Truckee River’s 100-year floodplain. This is because in the event of a 100-year storm event, the river could cover the landscaped area, dragging sediment, fertilizer, and other objects back into the water.
If Lahontan finds a project is in violation of the Basin Plan, the agency issues an enforcement letter or notice of violation outlining corrective action the property owner must take, along with a deadline. If that doesn’t work, the next step involves attorneys from Lahontan’s Office of Enforcement in Sacramento who can issue a cleanup and abatement order. If the property owner still doesn’t comply, Lahontan is authorized to fine people up to $10,000 a day or $1,000 per gallon of sediment. But that doesn’t happen very often.
“We very seldom have to go to a monetary fine,” said Ben Letton, Lahontan assistant executive officer. “It’s a very onerous process to bring an administrative civil liability [monetary fine] to the board. We don’t want to do that. It takes a lot of time and resources; we have to involve attorneys. We would rather not go there. We frontload our efforts into the informal enforcement process.”
According to Letton, even if Lahontan had discovered the Truckee River violation soon after construction started this past winter, it would not have allowed the property owner to restore the area until grading season began on April 15. According to Smith, Lahontan was notified of the illegal construction in February. But it wasn’t until July 29 that Lahontan issued a notice of violation and gave the property owners one month to take corrective action, which involves removing terracing, steps, and flagstones. Because the property owner could not get a surveyor out in time, Lahontan has given them an extension.
The property owners declined to speak with Moonshine for this story. However, their lawyer, John Downing, said the couple did not change the grade of the slope to the river and only put in railroad ties to maintain the existing grade, removed trash from the river, and moved rocks to create a wall separating their property from Smith’s yard.
“They did not know they needed permits,” Downing said of his clients. “It was only in reaction to complaints that made the town come out, then Lahontan came out and the Army Corp of Engineers came out and said they needed to remove rocks.”
Letton disputes that characterization. “In order to create this retaining wall and put elevations in place, they would have had to change the grading of the property,” he said. “Maybe the attorney thinks grading is only what can be done with equipment or a bulldozer, but we consider when you change the elevational profile of the property or stream bank where you are cutting into a stream bank in one location and filling it, that is grading activity.”
Lahontan currently has three to four other similar cases along the Truckee River.
Letton said that Lahontan fields about a dozen new complaints per month, with about 20 staff members in Tahoe who can do first level code enforcement, and three for the Truckee River. Letton acknowledges that Lahontan’s process is not expeditious, but the agency’s large jurisdiction — 570 miles long and 33,131 square miles — makes it impossible to constantly patrol local violations.
“We rely more on education and also deterrence,” he wrote in an email. “We don’t have the staff resources to be patrolling Truckee looking for violations, so we rely on field presence when we do inspections on permitted sites and also responding to citizen complaints.”
Tahoe Regional Planning Agency
According to TRPA spokesman Jeff Cowen, the agency, which oversees environmental issues within the Tahoe Basin, rarely resorts to fining property owners unless they refuse to correct the violation. In that case, the next step would be a cease-and-desist order, and the TRPA can fine people up to $5,000 per instance per day.
The agency had to do just that this summer when they discovered that Action Water Sports of Incline Village, a concessionaire at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe, had placed 13 additional buoys in the lake without permits. Although the TRPA had the right to charge Action Water Sports $5,000 per buoy per day for the three months they were in the water, the TRPA reached a settlement agreement in which the owner had to remove the buoys and pay $100,000.
“There was no need to charge an exorbitant number,” Cowen said. “We want the issue to be corrected and stopped immediately.”
The TRPA has two boats patrolling the lake all summer, as well as three site inspectors — one for the North Shore, another for South Lake — and a forest inspector for tree removal permits.
Cowen stresses that while getting compliance with some violations — like buoys — is a slow process, the TRPA moves fast on ones that threaten public safety or the environment.
“It’s kind of as fast as it needs to be because these are not violations of public health and safety,” he said. “Once they stop, the whole impact is gone. The ones we are more interested in and getting a really rapid response on is tree removal, grading, and pollution because these impacts can continue on for a long time.”
Real Estate Disclosures
Molly Jones, the landlord who owns the house that Smith rented next door to the unpermitted landscapers on Riverside Drive, wishes there was more public outreach by these agencies, and that fines were steeper and came faster for violations.
“I personally feel that if fines were high enough to deter homeowners and were made very clear in disclosures, it would have a bigger impact,” said Jones, a semi-retired real estate broker who also asked that her real name not be used because of the potential litigation. “Fines of $10,000 to $20,000 don’t faze people who want the perfect riverfront yard. They should send out letters to existing owners now, stop them before they start a project without necessary permits and engineering.”
In fact, while real estate agents are required to direct buyers to all state and local disclosures —including the Natural Hazard Disclosure (floodplains are an example) — the onus is on the buyer, who must sign documents stating they have read and understood all the disclosures, to be informed.
“We steer them to different code enforcers like the county or HOA or whatever CC&Rs [covenants, conditions, and restrictions] spell out as their authority over the property,” said Charlene Gamet, Tahoe Sierra Board of Realtors president, noting that purchase agreements are 53 pages long. “We don’t specifically tell them you can’t do this or that.”
If it were the real estate agent’s responsibility to be sure the homeowner knew about every code covering their property, Gamet said, it would open realtors to liability.
“We are giving them all the material, they have to take it upon themselves to understand it,” she said. “I am not going to tell them what they can and can’t do. I am going to tell them, ‘Here is who you need to talk to.’”
For Jones’ tenant, enforcement by Lahontan and the town came too late. Due to a contentious relationship with the neighbors that developed over the construction project, Smith is moving out at the beginning of October. But Jones is doubtful if anything could have prevented the bad blood between neighbors.
“It probably would have happened anyway,” she said.
Truckee Fire Protection District
Some of the local agencies that require real estate disclosures and inspections include the Truckee Fire Protection District. Its most recent disclosure, passed in 2019, is the escrow ordinance, which requires a defensible space inspection on the property at escrow (the seller’s responsibility), and the buyer has to acknowledge purchasing property in a very high fire severity zone. The district’s defensible space ordinance was enacted in 2012.
Violating the district’s defensible space ordinance is punishable as a misdemeanor or infraction. Truckee Fire also has the right to mitigate violations on its own, meaning the district can go onto a property and abate the hazard, and attach the bill to the property’s tax rolls. But, as with the town and Lahontan, Truckee Fire rarely resorts to fining violators, preferring to get compliance through education.
“Penalties don’t end up being the best way to spend our resources,” said Truckee Fire Marshal Kevin McKechnie, noting that the fire district has to prosecute its own cases, not the district attorney. “Our resources are finite. We get more bang for our buck working on public outreach.”
To someone who is living next door to a fire hazard, however, the slow pace of enforcement can be unnerving, especially in light of the massive fires occurring near Tahoe at this time. John Radebold has been concerned about his neighbor’s two properties ever since he bought his Kings Beach home 10 years ago. According to Radebold, the neighboring property contains piles of construction debris and three massive heaps of pine needles that he estimates to be each 5 feet high by 4 feet wide and 10 feet long, that have been accumulating for years. Radebold even offered to help split the costs of cleaning up the properties but his neighbor, who rents out the two homes, declined.
“It seems like after a period of time, especially with such egregious things like this behind me, [the North Tahoe Fire Protection District] would do something,” said Radebold, who started filing complaints with North Tahoe Fire at the beginning of the summer. “As things got worse and worse with fires all over the state, I said, ‘Jesus, this is crazy.’ So I said I will work with the system.”
But like many people, Radebold found the system to be slow. After complaining to both North Tahoe Fire and Placer County, he finally did a public records request from the fire district and discovered that his neighbor’s four Kings Beach properties have each received a notice of violation and an order to abate hazardous vegetation and combustible material, and that one property had three notices from Cal Fire dating back to 2018 to do defensible space work, the most recent one from July 29 of this year. North Tahoe Fire will re-inspect the properties in 30 days, and if no corrective actions are taken, the property owner will be referred to Placer County for enforcement of violations, according to an email from the fire district to Radebold.
Placer County fines start at $100 when the homeowner has not complied with multiple requests to fix the problem.
According to North Tahoe Fire, the district did not have the ability to enforce defensible space standards until the adoption of a state code in 2020 that requires defensible space within 100 feet of homes, and Placer County’s Hazard Vegetation and Combustible Material Ordinance, passed in May 2020.
Now the district reports that Radebold’s neighbor has made substantial progress on the items that were noted in the complaint.
“The work is still in process, but it is a good example that the system works, and why we like to focus on education and encouraging property owners to do the work even when inspecting and notifying through enforcement channels,” wrote NTFPD spokeswoman Erin Holland.
But some advocacy groups worry that agencies are not acting fast enough to stop code violations, with long-term implications both on the ground and in terms of public trust.
“We are seeing code enforcement laws that are not effective and not quick enough to address the issues and the impacts,” said Alexis Ollar, Mountain Area Preservation executive director. “This continues to bleed into public sentiment that our government doesn’t really care; it’s just another loophole.”
While agencies must walk the tightrope between cracking down on code violators to stop potentially hazardous activities and giving property owners time to fix the issue, Ollar does not believe that local agencies have achieved this balancing act. Ollar points to Coburn Crossing as an example. Last year, MAP started hearing that the development, which was supposed to be dedicated to local workforce housing, was renting to people out of the area. Ollar said it took almost a year to get the town to do an audit, which revealed that 17 units were being rented to non-locals.
“I want to see action and that’s what the community wants, what residents want,” she said. “But too often with government we are waiting. We want to see action because we care about this place.”