Governor Jerry Brown this weekend signed SB630, an act of the California Legislature that seriously reduces protections for Lake Tahoe, the treasured mountain lake that spans the California-Nevada border. The law expresses support for a new Tahoe Regional Plan Update, approved in December 2012 by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA), which delegates authority over future development decisions to local jurisdictions. The plan also allows those towns and counties to adopt weakened pollution controls that do not meet the minimum environmental standards established by TRPA.
“In signing this bill, Governor Brown is caving into the state of Nevada’s demands to morph TRPA into an economic development agency, at the expense of restoring Lake Tahoe’s clear blue waters.” said Laurel Ames of the Tahoe Area Sierra Club in California. “This new plan fails to recognize that the significant increase in buildings, rooftops, and pavement that it allows will significantly increase the amount of polluted runoff from rain and snowmelt that flows directly into the Lake.”
Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore filed a federal lawsuit in February 2013 challenging new Regional Plan Update, which sets rules for development at Lake Tahoe that seriously reduce protections for the treasured mountain lake.
“This bill illegally cedes the powers given to Tahoe Regional Planning Agency by the California-Nevada compact to protect Lake Tahoe’s environment to the local governments that failed to protect the lake in the past,” said Wendy Park, the Earthjustice attorney handling the case. “Cash-strapped local governments—which lack the regional perspective and expertise to ensure that the Lake as a whole is protected—are unlikely to adopt and enforce adequate environmental protection measures in the face of lucrative development proposals.”
Lake Tahoe is one of the largest and deepest mountain lakes in the United States, and TRPA’s fundamental purpose is to restore the lake’s former fabled water clarity and the health of the Tahoe Basin’s environment.
The plan encourages replacing low-rise buildings that surround the lake with taller, bulkier structures. Near the casino corridor of South Lake Tahoe, height restrictions have been increased under the new rules from three to six stories; in smaller villages such as Tahoe City, from two to four stories; and in Nevada, casinos can reach up to 197 feet, or 19 stories.
The revised plan also allows local governments to approve development regulations that do not meet minimum regional environmental standards, including standards for how much land can be paved, or “covered.” This violates the compact’s requirement that TRPA establish “a minimum standard applicable throughout the region.”
In 1968, California and Nevada entered into a bi-state agreement designed to protect natural resources and control development in the Lake Tahoe Basin, in the face of rapidly declining water clarity. The agreement, the Tahoe Regional Planning Compact, created TRPA to serve as the land use and environmental protection agency for the Lake Tahoe region and became effective through congressional authorization and the President’s signature in December 1969. When the 1969 Compact failed to stem growth as intended, largely because development approvals were left in the hands of local governments that did not take regional impacts into account, the states adopted amendments to the compact approved by Congress in December 1980. One of the most significant changes in the compact was a requirement that one regional body, TRPA, review and approve all projects within the region, so that the welfare of the entire Tahoe Basin would be taken into account in decisions regarding new development proposals.
The Compact also required TRPA to adopt “environmental threshold carrying capacities,” or “thresholds”—“environmental standard[s] necessary to maintain a significant scenic, recreational, educational, scientific or natural value of the region or to maintain public health and safety within the region.” Within one year, TRPA was required to adopt a regional plan that would achieve and maintain these thresholds. After a lawsuit by the State of California to enforce the Compact’s regional plan and threshold provisions, a new regional plan was approved in 1987 that has since provided the framework for ensuring that all development is consistent with achieving and maintaining these thresholds. While the 1987 Plan has not succeeded in attaining many of these thresholds (including lake clarity, which has steadily declined over the years), it has more or less limited urbanization of the Tahoe region.
But developers and other business interests in Nevada have long complained that the Compact and the 1987 Plan’s controls and standards are too restrictive. In 2011, pressure from these interests led to passage of a Nevada law that required Nevada to withdraw from the Compact in 2015 if California did not agree to certain changes in the Compact and TRPA did not adopt a new regional plan. In reaction to this threat, TRPA hastened to complete the “Regional Plan Update” it had started, which proposed significantly weakening the 1987 Plan.
On December 12, 2012, TRPA adopted a Regional Plan Update, which incorporated the weakened environmental standards that Nevada demanded. Most significantly, these include the delegation to local governments of TRPA’s project-review and approval duties for projects under 100,000 square feet in size. This delegation runs counter to the Compact’s intent to provide regional oversight of all projects and violates the Compact’s clear directive that it is the TRPA governing board’s duty to review and approve projects and to ensure that any project it approves complies with TRPA’s environmental standards to protect the lake and its environment.
In addition, the Plan Update weakens the standards by which new projects are reviewed and approved. It allows local governments to establish development standards that do not meet minimum regional requirements, including standards for how much land can be paved. This unlawfully leaves it to local governments to provide the “minimum standards” for environmental protection that TRPA should be providing and fails to ensure that such local standards are at least as protective as TRPA’s.
The Plan Update also opens more than 300 acres of undeveloped land to “resort recreation” development, expanding Tahoe’s urban boundary; allows up to 3,200 new residential units and 200,000 square feet of new commercial floor area; and allows increased concentration of pavement closer to the lake in urban core areas—up to 70 percent land coverage in designated “community centers.” The Plan Update’s strategy to restore Lake Tahoe is to loosen development restrictions and encourage redevelopment in urban core areas while removing existing development from sensitive outlying areas, on the theory that this would enable more environmentally sensible projects. But this strategy fails to account for the drastic increase in new, concentrated development that the Plan Update allows and the harmful impacts of that increase and does not ensure that compensatory removal of existing development on sensitive lands will, in fact, occur. The environmental analysis on the Plan Update fails to adequately study the water quality, air quality, and impervious pavement impacts of that increase and to ensure enough removal of existing development to offset the impacts of new development. As a result, TRPA’s required findings that the Regional Plan update achieves and maintains TRPA’s own environmental protection standards are not credible.