When the task of recommending the layout and intensity of Truckee’s future development goes before the planning commission today at 5 p.m., it’ll be a long time coming — and with a lot of baggage in tow.
The meeting’s goals are for the five commissioners to reach majority consensus on a land use alternative for the town’s 2040 general plan and to make a formal recommendation to town council. The alternative they select will dictate the what, where, and why of construction and preservation in Truckee.
“The land use alternatives are really a critical point in a general plan update process,” said Jenna Gatto, planning manager at the town. “The alternative that gets selected is what gets analyzed in the [environmental impact review]. It’s very important from that perspective because it really sets the wheels in motion for the direction of the general plan. It’s really one of the biggest decision points that the [general plan advisory committee] and ultimately the planning commission and council will have.”
Truckee’s latest rendition of its general plan will serve as a guiding document, paving the way for future development, conservation, and many other goals and policies through 2040. Originally anticipated to take about two-and-a-half years, from November 2018 to early 2021, the update process has gone on longer than planned. The land use alternatives phase, which began in the fall of 2019, has also stretched past its initial deadline due in part to the Covid-19 pandemic, but also because the general plan advisory committee (GPAC) and town staff have grappled over information and outcomes. To date, GPAC has not reached a consensus on land use guidelines, which means they don’t have a recommendation for the planning commission at the meeting.
“There are some vital pieces of the land use alternative presentation missing,” said Sherrin Fraiman, one of 20-plus GPAC members. “We’ve been asking for this information this whole time and the consulting team just keeps coming back with a couple little crumbs, but not giving us the information that we need … You can’t make a recommendation if you don’t have the information, and so now we’re just sort of stuck.”
As representatives of different sectors in Truckee’s community, GPAC members as well as town locals have expressed concern over what they deem as missing insight and convoluted information.
“I’m sympathetic to why [town staff wants] to wrap this up,” said local author Tanja Hester, who’s been following the process. “The pandemic has thrown such a huge wrench in it, the cost has exploded because it’s taken so much longer, but they’ve skipped the whole consensus process. The whole point of the GPAC is to represent the community, and the GPAC has essentially said they don’t approve of these land use alternatives, and yet they’re moving forward anyway for an arbitrary timeline.”
Town staff, however, says no consensus was ever necessarily expected out of GPAC because there are too many conflicting interests.
“We’ve spent enough time with the GPAC to recognize that it was very unlikely that we would get a strong consensus on all of the different alternatives,” explained Gatto, who, as the town’s planning manager, is also manager over GPAC. Additionally, town council is eager to proceed because the delayed schedule has pushed the general plan update process over the original $1.2 million budget; council also wants to better address climate change. (Due to recent cyberattacks on the town, data is unavailable for the confirmation of specific numbers, including how much the general plan’s budget has been extended. The town did share with Moonshine that multiple budget amendments have occurred since the update planning began.)
With those factors in mind, Gatto said, “We made the decision to continue forging ahead [with the general plan] in as thoughtful of a way as we can.”
A heavy lift
“Most planners, if they’re lucky, will see one general plan in their life,” Gatto told Moonshine Ink.
“General plans, in general, are a slog,” she continued. “Any place that’s ever gone through them, they just go, ‘Oh my god; that was so hard.’ And ours, unfortunately, had the pandemic thrown in there … It’s probably been the most challenging of my 20-year career, the last year and a half.”
Complexities be damned, such plans are requirements in the state of California. Gatto compared the plan to a bible, something staff relies “on in making recommendations for projects and things that are happening in the town.”
The 2040 plan update is Truckee’s second ever. Three years after its 1993 incorporation, the town created its first general plan, updating it in 2006 to the 2025 general plan, which is what the town currently abides by. California doesn’t mandate how often a general plan needs to be updated, though the housing element, one of nine state-required components as part of the plan, is required to be updated every eight years in Truckee. The cycle used to be every five years until the town became certified through a housing element process.
With the sunset for the current plan nearing, the next update’s wheels remain in motion.
The GPAC was formed as one of multiple public involvement options during the 2040 update. Rather than host numerous public workshops and invite the entire community (as was done during the 2025 plan update), members of the GPAC represent different sectors of locals — businesses, nonprofits, homeowners, youth, etc.
“Having a GPAC means the general community is not as engaged in the day-to-day happenings of the general plan,” Gatto said; “but it also means that a group of people are basically committing two, three, four years of their lives. They’re saying they’re in it for the long haul and they will speak on behalf of the community.”
The group has met almost every month since November 2018. Even nearly three years of monthly meetings into the process, however, unpacking the details of a general plan update is a heavy lift for members of the public.
“I think town staff has rightfully struggled trying to balance giving people enough information to make an informed choice with making it easy enough for a lot of people to participate,” shared Ruth Miller, a member of the GPAC and a planning commissioner who has a background in planning. “That’s fundamentally a challenge that every planner has in every community … These people have been doing it for years, people get PhDs in it. So how do you distill that into something that any person with the amount of time they have can walk in off the street and say oh, this makes sense for the future?”
Miller explained that what is likely to happen at the planning commission meeting this evening is staff will present land use options for five key parts of town, identified as focus areas, based on input from the GPAC and public. “We get to subjectively decide how much we want to balance our personal preferences, our interpretation of what we heard the public say, and the goals and objectives,” she said.
The land use guidelines focus on five areas across Truckee in which to seek targeted growth: Donner Lake, Gateway area/Donner Pass Road, North State Route 89, West River Street, and Glenshire/eastern town limits. These areas were selected based on the 2025 general plan, development patterns, and public/GPAC input.
Within each focus area, six different options are being considered, each with varying densities and types of development. Each option, except the first, proposes greater development capacity than what currently exists in the 2025 plan, which projected 17,800 residential units and 5 million square feet of non-residential development by 2025. These options were compiled and arranged to create the six town-wide alternatives, listed below. It’s the town-wide alternatives that the planning commission will recommend to council.
- Alternative A: Continued 2025 general plan with no change in total development capacity.
- Alternative B: A push for a four-season economy, maximizing the amount of commercial and industrial development. Includes an emphasis on businesses serving locals.
- Alternative C: Focuses on full-time resident housing and seeks to create the greatest variety of residential options.
- Alternative D: With infill development, higher density housing and mixed-use construction would be supported within existing corridors.
- Alternative E: Compared to other alternatives, the low-growth alternative places growth within already developed areas at a lower intensity.
- Alternative F: River revitalization activates the Truckee River as a location to receive housing, business, and community gathering locations.
For example, someone who may want to see more achievable housing, alternative C, would gravitate toward option two at Donner Lake and Glenshire; and option three at Donner Pass Road, North SR-89, and West River.
Any land use changes made will be applied to just 3% of Truckee’s area, limited due to current build-outs, preserved open space, and separate plans.
2025, to be continued?
If GPAC member Sherrin Fraiman had to pick one land use alternative, it’d be alternative A — continuing the 2025 general plan — but with a few bells and whistles.
“Some of us have started calling it ‘A-plus,’” Fraiman said. “The plus is all the additions, the things we can change. All of the policy changes that we can do while leaving the zoning [the land use designations and densities] as it is.”
Fraiman is a newer member of the committee, having joined in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and representing the homeowner crowd. Her former husband, Daniel, is a member of the planning commission, but she says there’s no conflict of interest. Her reasoning for wanting to continue with the current plan is consideration of the larger picture: Without seeing the 2025 plan to fruition with all the projects from the previous 20 years going vertical, it doesn’t make sense to change direction.
“To me, the current general plan is a really great plan,” Fraiman said. “It’s of my opinion that we just go in and tweak the things that we’ve learned along the way, plus all this new information from Covid, and tweak it and keep going with that plan and keep the growth at a nice, steady pace, the same that we’ve done for the last 20 years because we did a good job with that.”
Jennifer Bloomfield, a 27-year local who works in the Safeway floral department, is of a similar mindset, pointing out that Truckee’s economy is at a crossroads, and looking so far ahead is foolish: “I think we need to stop, get our act together, [and] fix the problems [like infrastructure incapable of accommodating both locals and visitors] that we have which are totally impacting our ability to maintain our tourism economy.”
And anyway, she said, “Truckee is plan-heavy. We have the general plan, and then we have all these area plans [and] workshops, which we have to weigh in on.”
Bloomfield has been following the planning process more recently — “I’m late to the party,” she admitted. But she took the late summer survey and attended two public workshops in recent months, at town hall and the farmer’s market.
Both Fraiman and Bloomfield support a proposed alternative out of Mountain Area Preservation, called the environment and community alternative — created because, as MAP executive director and GPAC member Alexis Ollar wrote in a public comment to GPAC, “the alternatives presented do not fit the vision, values, or hopes for the future of Truckee.”
The MAP option “utilizes the 2025 general plan as a baseline, removing zoning in areas that are not appropriate [and] recommending overlays [additional protections or constraints on a parcel] to prioritize the type of development that Truckee needs and climate action policies to deal with existing conditions and environmental hazards,” she stated in the letter.
Ollar later told Moonshine that this MAP-generated alternative particularly focuses on the Upper McIver Dairy property (up-zoned in 2018 from commercial to residential) in the Gateway focus area, and Canyon Springs, on Truckee’s eastern edge, calling them both inappropriate areas for high-density development.
In the 2025 plan, both Upper McIver and Canyon Springs are designated for residential uses. Canyon Springs is proposed for low-density single-family residences, a planned community which would allow residential development while preserving open space, or complete preservation as open space. Comments from some GPAC members propose consideration of a higher density alternative on Canyon Springs.
Upper McIver, meanwhile, was rezoned in 2018 from commercial to residential to fulfill a state requirement pertaining to the development of affordable housing. The site is designated for high-density residential, with 16 to 18 dwelling units per acre. Proposals in the 2040 update include preserving the parcel as open space, a hospital campus expansion, or residences with 16 to 18 units per acre.
“A part of our alternative is really trying to work with the town, if possible, or with the property owners to eliminate the density that doesn’t make sense,” she said. MAP is currently working with the Truckee Donner Land Trust, SOS Glenshire, and the Martis Fund to purchase Canyon Springs by Dec. 15.
The environment and community alternative doesn’t shun all types of growth, Ollar said. Rather, it promotes balance.
“If we put this much density here, then how are we offsetting that?” Ollar posed. “That’s been the discussion that I think many of us have wanted to have. We’re not saying no to growth; we’re saying ‘Let’s be responsible and let’s also look in the rearview mirror.’”
MAP’s environment and community alternative does not specifically propose placing high-density options in any of the focus areas. Rather, the organization suggests the possibilities of development — particularly in the Gateway/Donner Pass area — but only if appropriate policies, programs, and mitigation measures are instilled beforehand, and if 2025 thresholds are maintained.
Peter Fenolio, government affairs manager for the Contractors Association of Truckee Tahoe, believes continuing with the current plan isn’t viable or sustainable for local businesses.
“It’s almost 20 years old now,” he said. “You have to adapt. To keep going under the current general plan is frankly unsustainable … because the only thing it guarantees is that our workers and small business owners, essential to serving the needs of our community, will continue to be displaced.”
By incorporating modern planning practices such as multimodal transportation and walkable communities, Fenolio continued, a balance between the goals of the land use alternatives (which include protecting and enhancing Truckee’s character, providing an increase of housing opportunities, preserving open space, and more) can be reached.
“But we have to recognize that some of these goals are conflicting, and we need to make compromises in some places,” he said. “It’s not that you have to compromise entirely, but you can’t achieve all of the goals 100%. There is some inherent conflict between adding housing options, maintaining town character, and preserving open space. That is the hope of this general plan process, to reveal the right balance for the needs of our community.”
He gave an example: Adding housing options through high density or mixed-use development infringes on Truckee’s character.
Fenolio wanted to make clear that he’s not criticizing high density infill development: “We just need to be aware that it could be in conflict with maintaining the current town character. That is not necessarily a bad thing — town character is always changing. The town was different when I was a kid growing up here, and it is sure to be different in 2040 at the end of the planning horizon for this current general plan update.
“Ideally, we’ll update the general plan on a more regular and incremental basis moving forward so that there is not such a feeling of stark dramatic change in the community,” he continued. “That’s part of the issue: Small communities can’t afford to update their general plan on shorter intervals, so when we do there is more catch-up work to do to bring the general plan into contemporary planning orthodoxy.”
No CATT members or employees are part of the GPAC.
There’s more to just conflicting opinions that’s plaguing town staff as the plan slogs forward: Enter, state requirements.
“Lots of folks have said we’re not listening, we’re not presenting — everything’s too pro-growth; they want negative growth alternatives and that kind of stuff,” said the town’s Gatto. “Some of that’s been difficult because state laws really don’t allow that any longer. We’ve had to be the messenger on that.”
Gatto doesn’t believe staff is pro-growth. Rather, she says the proposed alternatives are an attempt to be responsive to the community’s challenges.
The real pro-growth culprit is the state: “The state wants housing, period,” Gatto said. “They aren’t necessarily focused on local housing or even really affordable housing, though there are lots of other affordable housing laws. The state wants housing, period, full stop. We are trying to balance that with what Truckee needs, and the state is increasingly eliminating our ability to have local control over housing decisions.”
The town is essentially dealing with quotas — being handed “pretty big numbers” of new units to provide, per Gatto, while simultaneously dealing with threats counter to density increase (like wildfire).
“It kind of helps fill in the context of why we’re being painted as pro-growth,” Gatto pointed out. “And also, because we are handed these numbers every eight years, we are obligated to plan for growth as long as the state of California continues growing … We are still growing and so that is our task: The state will continue telling us we have to plan for growth.”
Expectation: Middle of the road
Different interests, understandably, are homing in on different land use outcomes, though it’s worth noting that each person mentioned in this article shared critical concern for more affordable housing.
Fraiman and Bloomfield are on board with MAP’s rendition of the 2025 general plan.
CATT and its 400 member businesses support alternatives C (residential housing) or F (river revitalization).
Fenolio anticipates a diplomatic outcome from the planning commission: “I expect an incredibly thoughtful discussion at the planning commission meeting. I know they’ll take it seriously. There will be some varying perspectives among the planning commission members [but] I expect, frankly, a middle-of-the-road recommendation.”
Tanja Hester, who expressed concern over GPAC consensus, said she wants a complete pause on the entire general plan process, shifting focus toward fire safety commitments, creating a healthy stock of affordable housing, and formalizing environmental justice efforts.
Miller, who will contribute to the planning commission recommendation, said her best version of Truckee “is closer to [alternative B] than [alternative A, the 2025 plan continuation], but it requires more than what is currently written in this document now.” She also likes the housing-focused option, alternative C. Miller said she would’ve liked to see transit options discussed in tandem with the proposed alternatives.
“Genuinely, I don’t think any of these options will be catastrophic for Truckee,” she finished. “Truckee’s beautiful; it’s going to continue to be beautiful … If years from now it looks like something really awful is going to happen because of this plan, there’s a process for town council to step in and change the general plan.”