Being the only incorporated municipality in Moonshine Ink’s coverage area, the Town of Truckee’s local control is the envy of neighboring towns. But it was far from a certain thing. The town’s first mayor, Kathleen Eagan, takes us back to where it all began.
~ Mayumi Elegado/Moonshine Ink
I heard the town of Truckee tried to incorporate in the ’80s but the effort failed. Why was that? What can we learn from the failure? And its ultimate success?
It turns out Truckee has a long history of flirting with incorporation. The first mention was in a short headline in an 1869 issue of the Montana Post — “Truckee, Nevada (sic) Wants to Incorporate.” Wow! Since that mention there have been perhaps another eight serious investigations, several of which made it to the ballot. None were successful until 1992. But the push to incorporate reached a fever pitch during the 1980s, culminating in a vote on the November ballot of 1986.
The fundamental issues underpinning the 1986 desire to incorporate centered on two things: the belief that Nevada County was out of touch with interests of the Truckee community and that the county was receiving more locally generated revenue than it was delivering back in the form of services. Particular areas of dissatisfaction were the level of service from Nevada County in snow removal, road maintenance, and land use planning.
Proponents and opponents established their positions along the question of fiscal solvency and formed two groups. The Town of Truckee Independence Committee (TTIC) saw that incorporation was financially feasible and that it was time for Truckee to manage its own destiny. Concerned Citizens Against Incorporation believed the risks of financial failure were too high and the town would bankrupt itself. Both groups were highly organized and vocal.
Reading the Sierra Sun prior to the vote reveals a contentious atmosphere overshadowing the entire campaign.
HIGH RISK: Opponents, which included Truckee Fire and the airport district, highlighted the dangers of financial failure in the run-up to the 1986 election. Newspaper clippings courtesy Sierra Sun
A consultant study commissioned by the TTIC showed the town to be financially feasible. Further, proponents claimed the study to be very conservative in that it understated revenue and overstated costs in some areas. Opponents raised concerns about the ability of the town to cover the cost to fight wildfires, the cost to pay for snow removal if we had a run of several big winters, the cost to repair deteriorating roads, and the ability to obtain sufficient liability insurance. Nevada County claimed it would lose $3.5 million over two years and would have to lay off 60 people in Truckee if incorporation passed. Proponents acknowledged there would be a loss of revenue to the county as it was spending less in Truckee than it was receiving in revenue, but also said that county personnel would be hired by the town and no jobs would be lost.
In sum, each side was presenting conflicting financial information and the voters were left to decide what was accurate.
Another issue was a bit more under the surface: consolidation of the special districts under the jurisdiction of the town. Consolidation was not part of the 1986 incorporation proposal. The consultant said incorporation would not have any effect on existing special districts and that the town “would co-exist with them.” Yet, an earlier 1976 study by a different consultant recommended consolidation of the public utility and sanitary districts into the town and that the town had the option of deciding to start its own fire and recreation departments. This would certainly have had an effect on those districts.
So while incorporation proponents did not propose consolidation, it is possible that the vestige of the earlier study and conversations about consolidation remained in the minds of opponents and voters. Some special districts openly opposed incorporation. The Truckee Fire Protection District was particularly outspoken. They took out full page ads in the Sierra Sun (see middle image on preceding page) and sent mailers to voters recommending a “No” vote.
INDEPENDENT MINDED: Proponents of incorporation in 1986 said it was time for the town to manage its own destiny. Newspaper clipping courtesy Sierra Sun
Both the airport district and a group of Donner Lake homeowners filed suit to remove Truckee incorporation from the ballot. They claimed the incorporation proposal included them within the town boundaries against their will. In addition, Tahoe Donner Homeowners Association attorneys filed a “friend of the court” brief alleging CEQA violations because of concerns that subdivision snow removal and other services would suffer under incorporation. Both lawsuits were dismissed by Nevada County Superior Court Judge Frank Francis. Yet, the concerns remained.
In short, the debates were fierce and the dialogue sometimes tainted by personal attacks. In the three weeks before the election, the Sierra Sun was full of ads both for and against incorporation. The paper was thick with Letters to the Editor … many acrimonious. Emotions ran high. Like an intense wildfire that creates its own destructive weather, the debate taking place among the proponents, opponents, special districts, and the county had created a firestorm that ultimately left the large number of undecided voters confused and not knowing where to land. In the final days leading up to that election, fear, uncertainty, and doubt tipped the scales toward the “No” vote.
The vote was 53% against and 47% for.
Despite the defeat, proponents stated they had accomplished a lot; the issues were now at the forefront. A leader of the opposition said, “It will happen in time. Now just wasn’t that time.” And Nevada County established an Eastern Nevada County Planning Commission in an effort to give a local voice to land use planning decisions. Was this a first glimpse of the possibility of coming together?
WHY WAS THE 1992 INCORPORATION EFFORT SUCCESSFUL?
There were a number of factors in play. First, despite setting up an Eastern Nevada County Planning Commission (ECPC) to guide development in Truckee, the Nevada County Board of Supervisors decided to overturn a unanimous decision by the local ECPC to deny approval of a Kmart at the junction of I-80 and Truckee Way, next to the cemetery. This decision, made in 1987, was the spark that re-ignited the desire for self-control.
Also, the approach was different this time. Planning for Tomorrow in Truckee (PTT), a newly formed committee studying incorporation, worked collaboratively with Nevada County and the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission to hire a consultant to assess financial feasibility. All figures used in the study were mutually agreed upon. PTT took no position on incorporation until it was clear from the fiscal analysis that incorporation was financially feasible. A survey conducted by PTT showed people were satisfied with the level of service provided by the special districts, diminishing concern over the risk of consolidation. In addition, PTT made serious efforts to find mutually agreeable solutions to the litany of fears raised in 1986. As examples, the financial risk of the cost to fight wildfires was mitigated by securing a fee agreement with Cal Fire to cover those costs; and it was agreed to exclude the airport district from the town boundaries.
With this open and collaborative spirit, no organized opposition developed. The incorporation measure passed in November 1992 with a vote of 73% for and 27% against. Of note, the other decision on the ballot was whether to call the new municipality a “Town” or a “City.” “Town” won by a vote of 83% to 17%.
Thanks to Greg Zirbel and Chaun Owens-Mortier of the Truckee Donner Historical Society for providing primary source information for this article.
~ Kathleen Eagan, Truckee’s first mayor