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Along Lake Tahoe, Planning for a Throwback to the 1980s

Officials say building of luxurious homes on waterfront is out of control. Some disagree.

November 24, 2002|Tom Gorman | Times Staff Writer

INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Lake Tahoe's unparalleled scenery used to be all about the snow-topped mountains, the lush woods and the deep clear water. But increasingly it's having to compete against spectacular shoreline trophy homes.

The lake's overseers say luxurious waterfront building has gone overboard, and to reverse the trend, they adopted unprecedented architectural and landscaping requirements last week, hoping to return the lake's natural scenic qualities to 1982 levels by trying to conceal man's intrusions in the alpine basin.

"Homes are visually impairing the lake's aesthetics. They've been getting bigger and bigger," said Dean Heller, Nevada's secretary of state who chairs the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. "Property owners are tearing down small, old homes and building homes five or six times larger. The architecture is very bold, they're closer to the shoreline and, worst of all, they're cutting down trees.

"If the lake is overdeveloped and all you see are homes," he said, "people will quit coming here, and there's no upside to that."

Key among the new restrictions: a virtual ban on mansion-scale homes that have risen along the shoreline over the last 15 years.

Well-heeled property owners have sued, angry at the prospect of scaling back their construction plans or having to plant trees to screen their homes from public view -- and jeopardizing their own million-dollar views. Environmentalists say the law is a good start but doesn't go far enough in reversing the effects of what they call "monster homes."

Rochelle Mason, executive director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe, said the rules are overdue "but at least we're finally moving in the right direction."

Under the camouflage law, proposed home designs will be scored on such criteria as color, type and number of windows, roof treatment, construction material, landscape screening and how large the structure will appear to boaters on the lake. If a home doesn't score enough points, it can't be built.

Any home with more than 2,200 square feet of surface visible from the lake is now deemed too large for the typical 100-foot-wide lakeside lots. Homes on a double-size lot can't be twice as big and will have to meet even tougher concealment standards.

High scores go to smaller homes constructed with natural stone or wood, with heavily textured siding painted in dark earth tones, multifaceted exterior walls, a dark roof, expensive glare-resistant windows and sufficient plantings -- features that help them blend in.

A boxy stucco house painted in light colors and with lots of reflective windows and little landscaping is probably doomed on the drawing boards.

The rules can't change what's already been built, but existing homes will have to meet some of the new standards if they are modified. Over time -- perhaps 20 years or longer as more homes fall in line -- officials hope Lake Tahoe's scenery will reflect how it appeared in the early 1980s.

Jan Brisco, the executive director of the lake's homeowners association, said she fears that residents will resist making home improvements in order to avoid the new requirements.

An Incline Village real estate agent said his clients, including property owners who haven't built homes, feel victimized.

"They are facing onerous regulations that will prohibit them from using the lots to the potential of their expectations when they purchased them," said Bob Wheeler, who headed the Committee for Reasonable Regulation of Lake Tahoe. It opposed the new rules and argued for better enforcement of existing guidelines. In anticipation of the rules, the committee filed a federal lawsuit last month against the planning agency.

The group contends that most of the 942 existing homes along the lake's 72-mile perimeter -- just over half of it privately owned -- would not qualify under the new guidelines. It argues that the Tahoe planning agency is overreacting and overreaching its legal rights, and that there have been no surveys to suggest that "real people find there is an unacceptable dominance of the human environment over natural endowments."

Reactions in town are mixed on that. "The homes are beautiful, but some are so big we can't see past them to appreciate the lake when we go on our walks," said Suzi Culbert, a Sacramento teacher, staying at her time-share condominium here.

But the trophy homes are part of the attraction, resident Alison Johnson said. "People love looking at the houses. Besides, the people building the big homes are the ones paying the taxes.... This is bureaucracy snowballing out of control."

The Tahoe planning agency was created by California and Nevada -- the state line bisects the lake -- and ratified by Congress in 1980. Among its purposes is to preserve the basin's scenery by governing man's intrusions in the environment.

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