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New Lake Tahoe plan to allow higher density development

New regional plan was devised under pressure from Nevada, which has threatened to pull out of a 1969 compact with California that set strict controls in the area.

December 25, 2012|By Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times
  • A view of snow–capped mountains, Lake Tahoe, and the historic Cal Neva Resort, Spa and Casino, once owned by Frank Sinatra, located on the peninsula of north Lake Tahoe. A new regional plan is intended to rid the Tahoe area of some of its strip development and turn town centers into more inviting, greener destinations that may help revive the area’s ailing economy.
A view of snow–capped mountains, Lake Tahoe, and the historic Cal… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

Lake Tahoe towns will grow taller and denser under a new regional plan that supporters hope will quell a rebellion by Nevada against land use regulations that have restricted development in the basin.

The new plan is intended to rid the area of some of its midcentury strip development and turn town centers into more inviting, greener destinations that will revive the area's ailing economy.

But the success of the strategy is far from guaranteed. Some traditional environmental defenders of the lake — one of the world's deepest and clearest — endorsed the plan primarily to persuade Nevada to remain in a 1969 compact with California. The pact created the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and set the framework for strict environmental controls in the basin, which straddles the two states.

"The plan does include a lot of positive elements, including community revitalization, redevelopment and bike paths," said Darcie Goodman Collins, executive director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe. "But these things may come at a price, which is taller and more dense development close to the lake."

The planning agency, which enforces the regional plan, has long been a target in the basin. Homeowners have complained that its regulations are onerous, and local officials have grumbled that it has too much authority.

The grousing reached a head last year when Nevada enacted legislation warning that it would pull out of the bi-state compact if California didn't make it easier to approve development.

"It was a sledgehammer," said Laurel Ames of the Tahoe Area Sierra Club. She condemned the new plan for handing the authority to grant permits back to local towns and clearing the way for more development in the scenic basin.

In the wake of Nevada's ultimatum, California and Nevada officials convened representatives from the two states, local government, business and conservation groups to work out a compromise. The result was the regional planning board's adoption earlier this month of an updated plan.

Much of the construction in the Tahoe basin took place before strong environmental controls were imposed. By the 1980s, more than half of the region's marshes and wetlands had been filled in or paved over. The world-famous clarity of the lake was declining by roughly a foot a year, diminished by sediment and pollutants washing into the lake from roads and urban areas.

Though the decline in lake clarity has slowed, today's clear depth, about 69 feet, is much shallower than the roughly 97 feet measured in 1967.

The path to recovery, officials say, lies in redevelopment with greener infrastructure that helps keep sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus out of the lake. And the way to get that, they decided, is to make new projects financially attractive to developers by allowing more density and height in the basin's town centers.

"Nobody wants Tahoe to become something it's not," said Leo Drozdoff, director of the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. "But we would like smart, environmentally sensitive development that can pencil out, that people want to take part in."

The new planning blueprint, an overdue update of the 1987 regional plan, will allow more four-story buildings in town centers and more six-story buildings in what has been designated the regional center — the area around the Highway 50 corridor in South Lake Tahoe.

The plan increases density limits in the centers and creates a new "resort recreation" zone for two areas, opening them to development: 250 acres next to the four high-rise hotel casinos in south Stateline, Nev., and 57 acres at the base of Heavenly Mountain Resort.

The update also expands an existing program of development rights that allows builders to transfer the rights from lots where older buildings in ecologically sensitive areas are razed, to new projects in town centers.

"The concept of this plan is against sprawl and to remove existing development from outlying areas and concentrate it in visitor centers," said Joanne Marchetta, executive director of the regional planning agency.

But will the strategy succeed?

"I think there are enough safeguards in the plan to protect the lake where things won't get worse," said Kyle Davis of the Nevada Conservation League. "Now, whether they'll get better" is uncertain, he added. "What we've designed may not work in terms of older development going away and cleaner and greener development in its place."

More projects will be required only to obtain local permits, escaping regional review, a change that Ames said did not bode well for the basin environment. "The local governments have not shown an interest in environmental protection measures," she said.

Local approvals can be appealed to the regional agency, and local plans will have to conform to regional standards. "This is not by any means unfettered," Marchetta said. "The locals want to protect the lake as much as [the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency] does…. I think we've come some distance in environmental sensibility and sensitivity over 40 or 50 years."

Nevada state Sen. John Lee, the Clark County Democrat who sponsored last year's law to withdraw from the compact, said his bill was intended to get California's attention. "They look over and see us as like a county. We had to let 'em know we were here and we're a valuable friend, that we weren't going to be continually dismissed," he said. "To their credit, they've been fantastic."

But the threat to pull out remains on the books. And Nevada officials have not signaled that they are ready to repeal it. "A lot of people want to take a wait and see approach," Drozdoff said.

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