By Cindy Gustafson
Ten years ago this December, a major shift took place in the Tahoe Basin. On December 12, 2012, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) Governing Board approved a critical update to the Lake Tahoe Regional Plan that brought environmental policies into the 21st century and strengthened the bi-state partnership that formed TRPA. While there is much more to do, the upcoming milestone is an opportunity to capture the region’s collective progress and carry epic collaboration forward to confront new challenges.
The bi-state Lake Tahoe Regional Plan serves as the blueprint for Lake Tahoe’s sustainability. It protects sensitive lands and manages a limited amount of new development to achieve environmental goals. Leading up to the 2012 Regional Plan Update, Tahoe’s town centers were largely in decline. Property owners were discouraged by permit processes and the high cost of installing stormwater infiltration measures to protect the lake. The updated plan maintained existing environmental standards and caps on development while creating a range of incentives to encourage more private sector investments in water quality and to make Tahoe more walkable and bikeable.
It is accomplishing this by giving more permitting authority to local governments and working with them to create local Area Plans. Within Area Plans, projects may have access to more land coverage allowances, slightly taller buildings and higher densities, and can get help treating stormwater on a larger, area-wide scale. Property owners receive streamlined permitting and other incentives to reduce the cost of environmental improvements and make property upgrades more feasible.
Today, six Area Plans have been approved in the region, covering nearly 90 percent of Tahoe’s town centers. Whereas investment in these areas had been flat for decades, since 2013 an estimated $350 million in improvements have been made to hotels and other tourist accommodations in the Tahoe Basin, and more than $100 million has been invested in major commercial renovations. We must maintain and strengthen these partnerships to encourage more reinvestment and help address rising construction costs.
The Regional Plan also provides homeowners incentives for installing water quality Best Management Practices (BMPs) to infiltrate stormwater on their property. Homes located on non-sensitive land can receive coverage exemptions for decks, permeable pavers, and garden sheds if BMPs are completed. Homeowners have been taking advantage of the new approach. The agency has issued more than 4,500 BMP certificates since 2013.
The Regional Plan includes the collaborative Environmental Improvement Program, or EIP. The updated plan set out to make Tahoe more walkable and bikeable and EIP partners have stepped up by adding 40 miles of walking and biking routes since 2013. In just ten years, partners have invested $910 million in more than 300 new projects, including 36,000 acres of forest health projects, 270 acres of stream environment zone restoration, and 870 acres of invasives species treatments.
These BMP installations, town center improvements, and EIP projects dramatically benefit water quality. Last year, researchers released the Lake Tahoe Total Maximum Daily Load 10-year performance report showing the region achieved a 23 percent reduction in fine sediment particles, surpassing the 10-year goal of 21 percent. The report states while lake clarity is no longer declining, evolving threats such as climate change, floods, drought, and wildfires loom over the lake’s future.
The progress made during the first 10 years of the updated plan is remarkable, and we’re confident we will continue to see more environmental and community benefits in the decade to come. But challenging work lies ahead. The momentum the plan is building around workforce housing cannot happen quickly enough and TRPA is persistently pursuing additional policy updates. Tahoe’s transportation system needs reliable sources of funding and greater connectivity, and the pace and scale of forest health projects must increase to protect Tahoe’s environment and communities from catastrophic wildfire. The continued strength and success of the Regional Plan will be invaluable to Lake Tahoe and our communities as we face these challenges.
A well-framed plan will also foster a successful transition of leadership at TRPA. Following an extensive search, the Governing Board has selected TRPA’s long-time deputy director and external affairs chief, Julie Regan, as the agency’s new executive director. I hope you will join the board in welcoming Julie to her new role at the end of November.
As we come upon Thanksgiving and the holiday season, I want to give special thanks to all Americans who have fought in our military. Join me this Veterans Day in showing our nation’s gratitude for their patriotism and willingness to serve and sacrifice for our nation.
— Cindy Gustafson is Chair of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Governing Board and District 5 Supervisor for Placer County.