2012 Regional Plan Update Background

What changed the “Mission” of TRPA from pro-environment to pro-development?

After decades of local governments scrambling to approve harmful development throughout the Tahoe Basin, and a previously unsuccessful attempt to establish a regional planning agency to watch out for the environment, Congress adopted the current Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) Compact in 1980, laying out TRPA’s role as the Basin’s environmental protector. One of the Compact’s key requirements is that the agency adopt environmental standards – called Environmental Threshold Carrying Capacities (ETCCs) – to protect the Basin’s unique natural resources, including the famed clarity of Lake Tahoe. The Compact also required TRPA to adopt a Regional Plan (RP) to regulate development in the Basin and make sure that above all else the environmental standards are met. The first TRPA Regional Plan was adopted in 1987. Because this plan reined in the rampant growth of the previous decades, many viewed TRPA as being too restrictive on development and overly protective of the environment. Those who wanted to see far more development sued TRPA over the limits on growth, and for many years, it was development interests who challenged TRPA.

Years before the Regional Plan update anticipated for 2007, TRPA began preparing. Unfortunately, the update was repeatedly delayed and political pressure shifted, and many decisions were made ‘behind closed doors’ without environmental study, eventually leading TRPA to approve the pro-development Regional Plan (RP) update in December 2012. In fact, many people still have no idea how the new RP changed, and when presented with the new Plan and what it means, many have asked why TRPA changed from its core mission of environmental protection to the current pro-development stance. Although we can not answer for the agency, there appear to be several pressures – both economic and political – that ramped up around 2006 and opened the door for this major shift:

1. Economic Depression Sets the Stage:

  • As Indian Casinos in California became popular, the casino industry on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe began to see fewer visitors and local jobs were cut.
  • The economy began to plummet nation-wide, reducing the tourism dollars spent in the Basin (including at the casinos), leading to more lost jobs in all areas.
  • Gas prices skyrocketed and people drove much less. Tahoe took an especially hard economic hit because our economy relies heavily on tourism, and most visitors drive to the Basin.

With fewer people coming to Tahoe coupled with the impacts of the economic depression, local conditions declined quickly. However, this wasn’t the first time Tahoe experienced bad times. There were several periods in the past when the economy was bad – but over time, it turned back around. Often, national influences (e.g. gas prices) changed, and eventually, more visitors came to Tahoe again, and investment in Lake Tahoe increased. Yet TRPA convinced many that the new development allowed in the RP will magically turn our economy around – even though the facts don’t support this.

2. Politics and Money:

Although a bad economy set the stage for demanding less environmental protection, other forces took advantage of an opportunity to pressure TRPA to change. TRPA began to approve more development, including massive projects (i.e. the Homewood Mountain Resort expansion) through strategically amending its own Code. Oddly, after a federal judge agreed and ruled that TRPA had not been meeting its Compact-mandated duty to achieve and maintain the environmental thresholds (in a 2010 Shorezone ruling), pressure to weaken TRPA’s protection only increased, especially from Nevada-side interests. In 2011, Nevada approved Senate Bill 271 (“SB 271”), which threatened that the state would pull out of the TRPA Compact if certain pro-development conditions were not met. In essence, the threat worked, and TRPA’s new RP represents a shift from prioritizing the environment to supporting the interests of ski and golf industries. One of the most obvious examples of this shift includes the new “Resort Recreation District” land use, which allows hotels and other structures to be build on currently natural, undeveloped land owned by Edgewood and Vail corporations. The RP also sets the stage for more areas throughout the Basin to be rezoned this way in the future; in fact, developers have already proposed the third “Resort Recreation District” on an undeveloped ridgeline (Martis Valley West Area Plan). In summary, things have changed, and unlike when the 1987 Plan was approved and the developers were challenging TRPA, now, environmental and community-oriented organizations like FOWS are challenging TRPA in order to protect our environment, our Lake’s pristine, clear waters, our quality of life, our local businesses, and where we live, work, and play. If this new RP is built out as planned, it will forever mar the beauty of Lake Tahoe, and in many cases, the ability for the public to see it.