ZEPHYR COVE, Nev. — For seven months developers, environmentalists and other combatants in the long war over Lake Tahoe's future have been meeting in an unusual last-ditch effort to forge a peace agreement that would both protect the environment and allow for continued growth around the lake.
The series of confrontational bargaining sessions, involving two dozen fractious participants, ended here on Tahoe's snowy shores last week and a final set of "tentative agreements" was sent along to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.
If the agency board of directors adopts this broad-gauge set of compromises, the resulting regional master plan could end nearly two decades of controversy over how best to control and even reverse the environmental damage caused by high-rise urbanization of a 500-square-mile basin high in the Sierra Nevada, east of Sacramento and west of Carson City.
"We're optimistic; we think we can have our cake and eat it too," said Michael D. Van Wagenen, executive director of the South Tahoe Gaming Alliance, one of the participants in a technique used in labor negotiations and arms control talks, but seldom, if ever, in land-use planning.
Most agree that the use of confrontational bargaining has been a gamble that depended upon both sides giving just enough to keep each other talking, sometimes long into the night. But there seemed no other way, according to the executive director of the planning agency, William A. Morgan, who conceived of the process as a last-ditch effort to lift a federal court-ordered moratorium on all construction imposed in 1984. There are about 17,000 residential lots affected by the moratorium.
Last June the agency hired Geoffry H. Ball, a trained "facilitator," to conduct the often stormy meetings. Armed with multicolored marking pens, sheets of butcher paper and a pleasant, even-tempered demeanor, Ball directed scores of negotiating sessions, marking down each argument, starring each concession, coaxing the combatants back to the table when tempers flared.
"We are at a make-or-break stage; we're walking the line between resolution and absolute war," said California Deputy Atty. Gen. Richard M. Skinner after last week's final session. Skinner is the lead attorney in the state's suit against the regional planning agency, which resulted in the building moratorium.
Skinner and others from both sides of the bargaining table expressed cautious optimism during last week's marathon sessions, but pointed out the agreements are only tentative, broad-brush policies that will be meaningless if they are not officially adopted by the 14-member agency board as the outline for a regional master plan.
The proposals, which will go to the board Wednesday would limit growth, encourage rehabilitation of existing commercial areas, all the while establishing ways to restore stream courses and repair the damaged ecosystems in the lake shore environment.
The consensus negotiators agreed that:
- During the next decade no more than 400,000 square feet of additional commercial building would be permitted in the Tahoe Basin, an addition of about 6% to the existing floor space. The location, size, shape and timing of this growth would be controlled.
- No development could cover more than 50% of a building site. Existing commercial developments that have buildings and pavement covering more than half of the land parcel would be encouraged to reduce this "coverage" when they next remodeled, or buy some land elsewhere and set it aside undeveloped.
- Each of the 17,000 residential lots will be re-evaluated to determine "environmental sensitivity," taking into account grade, hydrology and plant cover. The least sensitive lots would be most suited for development. The owners of the most sensitive lots--those least suitable for construction--could sell their land to the government for preservation as open space.
- Where possible, the owners of an estimated 300 residential lots that were midway through the building permit process when the moratorium was ordered should receive special consideration when that restriction is lifted. However, a slow timetable for development of residential lots should be set so that not more than 1,700 homes are built over the next five years. - The plan would have the flexibility to allow landowners to offset development of some property by purchasing additional property for preservation. Environmental restoration work would also earn developers exemptions.
Before the consensus negotiations got under way last summer, all of the parties agreed that they would be bound by the policies hammered out during the talks only if there was total agreement on the entire package, and then only if an economic study, now under way, proved none of the restrictions would be overly harsh on the economy.