Environmental groups filed their opening brief in the lawsuit challenging the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s (TRPA) approval of the Tahoe Regional Plan Update (RPU) for failing to address negative impacts on soil conservation, water quality, and air quality in the environmental report on the RPU and in TRPA’s legally required findings regarding its approval.
The bi-state Compact to protect Lake Tahoe’s environment requires various environmental protection thresholds to be met. TRPA must ensure that these thresholds will be met so that any development around Lake Tahoe would not harm the environment. Because the environmental impact statement on the RPU failed to study significant water quality, air quality, and soil conservation impacts to the Lake, TRPA has no basis for its findings that the threshold standards for protection of these resources would be met in the future. Because of this failure to take environmental threats to the Lake and its environment seriously, the Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore, represented by Earthjustice, have requested that the Court invalidate the approval of the RPU.
“Lake Tahoe’s famed clarity is severely threatened by soil erosion and pollutant-laden runoff from excessive development around the Lake, as well as by particulate matter from air pollution,” said Wendy Park, an Earthjustice lawyer representing the plaintiffs. “It is utterly unacceptable that TRPA should chart future planning for the Lake without rigorously studying the threats to air, water, and soil that their plan entails.”
The RPU, approved in December 2012, actively promotes increased intensified development in identified “urban centers” around the Lake. Compared to the old Regional Plan, which had been in effect since 1987, the RPU will allow an additional 3,200 residential units and 200,000 square feet of new commercial floor area in the Tahoe Basin, where current levels of urbanization have already seriously degraded water and air quality. TRPA claims that the increased urbanization will actually improve the Lake’s environment, by providing incentives for aging, poorly located development to be removed and relocated to urban centers. But these incentives allow far more new development in the Tahoe Basin than would be removed. That development will increase hard surfaces near the Lake, sending more polluted runoff into its waters.
“TRPA has sadly abandoned its core mission of restoring and protecting Lake Tahoe’s environment,” said Laurel Ames of the Sierra Club. “Its notion that the environmental impacts of over-urbanization on Lake Tahoe can be solved by intensifying that urbanization starkly illustrates just how far it has strayed from that mission.”
“In the face of declining water clarity and quality at Lake Tahoe, it is astounding that TRPA has given the go-ahead to a significant increase in concentrated urban development near the Lake, which will send more sediments and pollutants into the waters it is charged with cleaning up,” said Susan Gearhart of Friends of the West Shore.
Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore filed their federal lawsuit in February 2013 challenging the new Regional Plan Update.
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 , until the approval of the RPU, provided the framework for ensuring that all development is consistent with achieving and maintaining these thresholds. While the 1987 Plan did not succeed 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 many of 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 all 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.
Trent Orr, Earthjustice, (415) 217-2082
Laurel Ames, Tahoe Area Sierra Club, (530) 541-5752
Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.