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Saturday, June 15, 2024 | Back issues
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Sierra Club Fights Growth at Lake Tahoe

SACRAMENTO (CN) - The Sierra Club sued the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, claiming its new rules for Lake Tahoe would open more than 300 acres of undeveloped land to "resort recreation" on the California side.

Friends of the West Shore, a nonprofit community organization, joined the Sierra Club in its federal complaint.

Californians have been fighting for years to preserve the pristine west side of the highland lake, and stop it from turning into what they view as the glittery hellhole of the Nevada side.

In its 33-page complaint, the Sierra Club claims the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency illegally shifted authority for development decisions to local jurisdictions, failing to ensure that environmental impacts will be held to less than significant levels.

Fending off these claims, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency said that the existing 1987 regional plan is outdated and that it has spent 10 years crafting these updates in an extensive bi-state consultation process.

In addition to approval from the TRPA Governing Board, the plan allegedly has wide support among private, public and environmental interests.

The Sierra Club is "out of touch" with the realities that face Lake Tahoe today, and the area needs a "modern approach to sustainability," one that "mixes incentives and a streamlined permit process with high environmental standards," TRPA Executive Director Joanne Marchetta said in a statement

"This lawsuit takes us back to the outdated environmental movements of 30 years ago," Marchetta said. "Simply demanding that development should go away or people should stop coming to Lake Tahoe is not a realistic plan."

But the Sierra Club said the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, or TRPA, adopted illegal amendments to the plan on Dec. 12, 2012.

"Most significantly, it delegated to local governments TRPA's project review and approval duties for projects up to 99,999 square feet in size," the complaint states. "This delegation runs counter to the Compact's intent to provide regional oversight of projects and violates the Compact's clear directive that it is TRPA's Governing Board's duty to review and approve projects and to make findings that any project it approves complies with the Regional Plan and its rules to effectuate that Plan."

The Sierra club claims: "(R)ather than being guided by the Compact's core purpose - to achieve and maintain environmental protection thresholds - and a proper environmental analysis of the Plan Update, TRPA allowed political considerations and ultimately the pressure for more development to dictate the Plan Update's terms. Because the Plan Update improperly delegates project review and approval to local governments, fails to require minimum regional standards, and is not supported by an adequate environmental analysis and proper threshold findings, the Plan Update is invalid, such that it must be set aside."

The complaint adds: "In addition, the Plan Update revises and loosens the standards by which new projects are reviewed and approved, while increasing the potential for new development throughout the region. It allows local governments to establish environmental standards that do not meet minimum regional requirements, including standards that limit how much land can be paved, or 'covered,' to protect natural soil function and prevent runoff into the Lake. This unlawfully leaves it to local governments to provide the standards that TRPA should be providing and fails to ensure that such standards are at least as protective as TRPA's."


The update will open up more than 300 acres to "resort recreation" development, allow up to 3,200 new residential units and 200,000 square feet of new commercial floor area, and allow increased development closer to the lake in urban core areas, the complaint states.

The plan update "will allow greater noise, visual blight, increased traffic, loss of natural soil function, and greater air and water pollution," the Sierra Club claims. "All of these injuries will diminish plaintiffs' members' ability to enjoy recreational activities in and around the lake. TRPA has failed to adopt minimum regional standards to avoid or reduce these impacts and failed to study and adopt adequate mitigation measures to avoid or significantly reduce these and other significant adverse impacts of the Plan Update, thus failing to prevent plaintiffs' loss of use and enjoyment of the Lake's environment caused by these impacts."

The plan update was brought on by a bill passed in Nevada in 2011 requiring the state "to withdraw from the Compact if California does not agree to certain changes in the Compact and TRPA does not adopt a new regional plan," according to the complaint.

Its proponents meanwhile insist that the plan incorporates scientific and sustainability principles that the national Sierra Club has endorsed in published reports.

"The Sierra Club is challenging a plan update for Tahoe that incorporates the best of their own organization's adopted policies concerning compact, mixed-use land use patterns," Marchetta said in a statement. "Tahoe's updated plan goes even further and retains the strongest growth control system in the nation. It is difficult to know why they would oppose their own suggested policies."

The group emphasized that the updated regional plan keeps the current caps on development and still prohibits neighborhood subdivisions, "while offering bonus 'units of use' to targeted projects in town centers that include sensitive land restoration, more open space and pedestrian and transit improvements."

Since the existing regional plan ground development to a halt in 1987, these aging structures are allegedly causing pollution.

"Neighborhoods and aging town centers continue to feed pollutants like fine sediment, phosphorus and nitrogen into Lake Tahoe, reducing the lake's famed clarity from 100 feet measured in the 1960s to an average of around 70 feet today," the agency said in a statement.

Town center projects would have to reduce land coverage and increase open space, as many of them are already 70 percent covered by buildings, roads and parking, it added.

It said the Sierra Club has taken issue with "policies that apply on only 1 percent of the land area in the watershed or less than a dozen of Lake Tahoe's town-center areas."

Though private properties confined to these areas need environmentally beneficial redevelopment, the Sierra Club has balked without offering other possible solutions, it added.

The plaintiffs seek an injunction setting aside approval of the plan update.

"Further, a new environmental analysis of the Plan Update pursuant to the Compact should result in a project that (1) eliminates or significantly reduces the traffic, air quality, soil conservation, water quality, scenic, and noise impacts of the Plan Update, (2) adopts adequate mitigation measures for the Plan Update's significant impacts, (3) preserves the Tahoe Region's quiet, peaceful atmosphere and scenic quality, or (4) results in some combination of such measures that will mitigate the otherwise significant impacts of the project to a level of insignificance," the complaint states.

The Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore are represented by Trent Orr and Wendy Park with Earthjustice in San Francisco.

One of the first white men to spend time at Lake Tahoe was Mark Twain. He described his weeks camping by the lake in "Roughing It."

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