By Julie Regan
People’s connections with Lake Tahoe have always run deep. For the Washoe Tribe, the lake is the center of the world, both geographically and spiritually. According to tribal elders, there is no distinction between the health of the land and the health of the Washoe. People and communities continue to form long-lasting connections to Lake Tahoe today. As the connections have deepened, the health of the lake and the very well-being of our communities have become inextricably interconnected.
Solutions to Tahoe’s greatest challenges most often share this bridge between community and environment. This is critical because the challenges we face today are nothing short of existential. The convergence of climate change impacts and the affordable housing crisis threatens the integrity of Lake Tahoe’s ecosystem and the sustainability of our communities. By building on the progress and innovative policies of the Lake Tahoe Regional Plan, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) is bringing forward regional solutions that address housing, equity, and climate goals together.
The affordable housing crisis strikes at the heart of our communities. Without accessible, secure housing options, our workforce struggles to put down roots, families face impossible choices, many more community members experience homelessness, and substandard conditions can be rampant. There are environmental consequences as well. Workers commuting from outside the basin add to traffic congestion and vehicle miles traveled, which is key metric for environmental quality. People who share our passion for the lake deserve to share the opportunity for connection to it as well.
As TRPA has begun modernizing policies to improve water quality and remove inequities, the agency’s mission and vision have never wavered. The states created our regional framework to unify local governments and provide consistency for property owners to protect the lake while improving local communities.
Guided for over half a century by the Bi-State Compact, the agency set caps and size limits on all development in the basin, helped establish the Environmental Improvement Program and the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team to restore the watershed and forest health, and is leading water quality strategies that are keeping more than 600,000 pounds of pollutants out of the lake every year. After losing about 30 feet of its famous clarity, Lake Tahoe’s clarity has remained stable since the 2000s. While most environmental targets are improving, there is much more to do.
The enduring success of the Regional Plan lies in our ability to adapt and respond to new scientific insights, environmental and economic shifts, and emerging threats. Today, our 15-member volunteer Governing Board is replacing outdated regulations with innovative policies to confront the intertwined issues of housing affordability and climate change. TRPA’s mission remains as relevant as ever with the visionary Bi-State Compact guiding our way.
Addressing the affordable housing crisis requires a multifaceted approach that goes beyond traditional solutions. While subsidized housing projects and financial assistance are crucial components, we must also embrace creative strategies that leverage private investment and community engagement. Just as property owners play a vital role in protecting water quality and preventing wildfires, new policies approved in 2022 encourage homeowners to contribute to housing solutions by building accessory dwelling units (granny flats).
TRPA’s board took action in December to help create new markets for affordable and workforce housing. Now we’re going to the next level to address the fundamental imbalances that are leading most new projects toward high-end upscale price points rather than affordable homes. The agency will also work with local partners to establish long-term engagement with underrepresented communities and advance housing choices, reduce vehicle miles traveled, and build upon the region’s transportation plans and Sustainable Communities Strategy.
However, our journey toward a more resilient and equitable Lake Tahoe is not without challenges. Following the board’s December decision, Truckee-based Mountain Area Preservation filed a lawsuit against the approval. This move is a reminder of the complexities inherent in our mission. Differing opinions are inevitable in a diverse community and the courts will have the final say. The agency stands by the new policies that support communities and protect the lake and we’ll continue working to find common ground.
We must act together to confront these existential threats. It is unacceptable that people working in our communities are living in substandard, untenable, and unsafe housing while others are forced to commute into the basin, exacerbating climate change impacts. The lake deserves better. By drawing upon our connections to this treasured lake we not only honor the legacy of those who came before us but also ensure a legacy of resilience and sustainability for generations to come.
Julie Regan is Executive Director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.
By Julie Regan
What a difference a year makes. This time last winter, many of us delighted in a promising snowpack, unaware that we were facing what would become the heaviest winter in more than 70 years. It was a tough one, even for some of us who survived the 1997 rain-on-snow disastrous winter. We got through it together, and 2023 had many bright spots with real progress for Lake Tahoe and our communities.
Regardless of the unknowns for 2024, maintaining collaboration and partnership will be critical for us to continue making major strides in water quality, climate resilience, community revitalization, and ultimately, Lake Tahoe’s restoration and protection. Simply put, we do better when we work together, and the stakes couldn’t be higher right now.
With temperatures rising globally and locally, the urgency around climate change cannot be understated. What may seem like a small shift – a few degrees in temperature – is consequential. Think about temperature change in the human body. A one-degree rise in body temperature can lead to a fever. Five degrees can land you in the hospital with your body shutting down. Over the past 100 years, Lake Tahoe’s daily minimum air temperature has risen 4.3 degrees. Just since 1970, the lake itself has risen 1.4 degrees and researchers are saying the lake is warming faster and faster.
Those few degrees are causing across-the-board impacts to this fragile ecosystem—water quality, aquatic invasive species, forest health and wildfire, a changing snowpack, and more extreme weather events. Tahoe has a fever.
The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) and our partners must continue leading on climate resilience work. We’re updating our regulations to be more climate smart and leading an initiative to deliver more Environmental Improvement Program projects faster and more effectively. We are also supporting the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team in treating 11,000 more acres in the Wildland Urban Interface by 2025, which will complete a key phase of priority treatments.
Along with our work on the ground, we are holding more community conversations. In addition to my series of Tahoe Talks last year, TRPA is co-sponsoring a special event featuring renowned climate scientist Dr. Katharine Hayhoe January 23rd in Incline Village with UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center, UNR Tahoe, and Operation Sierra Storm. Drawing on her expertise as chief scientist for the Nature Conservancy and lead author of multiple National Climate Assessments, Dr. Hayhoe encourages climate conversations like these to build hope and healing to help fight climate change. She will also present at Lake Tahoe Community College later that day. Register for free here.
We’ve learned over the years that at Tahoe, the lake, economy, and community’s quality of life are intertwined in what’s called the triple-bottom-line. This is most apparent in our progress on affordable and workforce housing. TRPA’s Governing Board stood up for locals with an important vote in December adopting policy changes to lower the cost for builders and private property owners to create more deed-restricted workforce housing. On top of earlier policy changes that created incentives for accessory dwelling units, our dedicated housing planners are expanding their work this year to integrate housing, equity, and climate goals into land use and water quality programs.
Lake Tahoe and resort communities across the nation are finding innovative solutions to deep-rooted affordable housing challenges. TRPA and our partners are supporting local workers by addressing fundamental imbalances in the basin. Over the next few years, we will be working with communities to advance housing options, reduce vehicle miles traveled, and establish long-term, two-way community engagement with a particular focus on disadvantaged and historically underrepresented communities.
In a region as diverse as ours, progress comes through partnerships. And everyone has a role to play. From taking micro transit or biking, to reducing plastic use and joining litter cleanups, to private property owners installing water quality Best Management Practices (BMPs) and creating fire defensible space, it is up to every one of us to ensure Lake Tahoe is sustainable, healthy, and safe for the community and generations to come. I hope you join us in coming together to make 2024 a year of incredible progress for Lake Tahoe.
Julie Regan is Executive Director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.
By Vince Hoenigman
First and foremost, there is widespread agreement that Lake Tahoe is at a tipping point. Our lake is threatened on multiple fronts and the housing affordability crisis is driving local residents out of the basin. It is causing more pollution from traffic and harming the fabric of communities. The lack of affordable housing and the substandard conditions some of our most at-risk community members live in are simply not acceptable. We must act.
Agencies at Lake Tahoe and across the United States are working to overcome fundamental barriers to creating affordable and workforce housing. It is critical that communities stand together and embrace the changes that are needed if we are to confront a housing crisis of immense proportion.
As the California Governor’s appointee to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) Governing Board and Chair of the Regional Planning Committee, I recognize the significance of policy shifts across the state and how critical it is for Lake Tahoe to keep pace. Since taking office, Governor Newsom and the California Legislature have invested $30 billion in affordable housing production and enacted dozens of permitting reforms, including 56 housing bills this year alone. In this climate, communities that don’t step up to solve their housing problems are turning their back not just on workers and businesses, but also on much broader public goals.
Resort communities everywhere are dealing with the same issues, yet Tahoe is unique among them. Our growth management system caps the number of units allowed in the basin and over 90 percent of all housing units have already been built. In a supply-constrained environment like ours, housing prices will continue to rise, pushing out workers and families. We have put off solving this problem for too long and further delay will only increase the impacts to everyone down the road.
Regardless of whether policy improvements will help California or Nevada, or North Shore or South Shore, every community in the basin has a responsibility to provide housing for its residents and workforce. The policies under consideration provide a baseline for action lake-wide while giving each community time to tailor their approach to their unique character and needs.
Further, the proposed changes not only provide achievable workforce housing, but also water quality improvements and help revitalize and create walkable and transit-serviceable communities. They pull remaining development into our town centers and require upgrades to stormwater management systems. They will also serve a swath of people working in the basin who aren’t entirely reliant on cars for their daily lives.
These regulations do not solve the affordable housing problems entirely. Other policy changes will be needed to address more heavily subsidized affordable and middle-income housing as well as affordable housing for larger families. Conversations about vacant second homes, locally governed short-term rentals, and overreliance on public subsidies are important to have. All solutions are on the table. However, Regional Plan policy changes that level the playing field for these greatly needed projects should not be swept aside to have a referendum on other issues. Traffic congestion, roadside parking, and emergency evacuation are being addressed comprehensively in ways that don’t limit equitable access to housing. We also need to recognize that reducing short-term rentals will produce scant numbers of workforce housing units. Few are in town centers and many of those, even if initially aﬀordable, may not remain aﬀordable for long because they’re not deed restricted.
We have to incentivize the development of buildings we want otherwise we’ll continue to get large, luxury buildings because that’s where the market is.
Lately, our efforts have been characterized by some as dangerous overdevelopment that will clog Tahoe’s roadways and open loopholes to allow more high-end residences. These regulations allow only 100 percent affordable, moderate, or achievable housing that is owner/renter occupied year-round by people working in the basin and none can be used as short-term rentals.
Scenarios of overdevelopment and unsightly buildings lining Tahoe’s roadways are simply not possible under the proposed policy updates. As the Lake Tahoe Region approaches “build-out,” we have to be asking what shape we want that remaining development to take.
I firmly believe incentivizing redevelopment in town centers will deliver benefits for the lake and our communities. While some of these proposed changes have drawn criticism, it is crucial to consider the benefits of workforce housing, community revitalization, improved lake clarity, and reduced traffic and emissions. Each project going forward will still be subject to its jurisdiction’s design guidelines ensuring the projects conform to the community’s character, and communities are still able to work with local governments to customize these policies as long as they achieve the same level of progress.
A well-informed public is critical to confront deep-rooted issues in a place as highly protected as Lake Tahoe. I encourage you to read up on the Tahoe Living strategic priority and consider lending your input by contacting the Governing Board or attending the hearing on December 13 in person or online. Find out more at trpa.gov/housing.
Vince Hoenigman is the California Governor’s Appointee to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Governing Board and Chair of the Regional Planning Committee. This column reflects his opinion as one of 15 members of the Governing Board.
By Cindy Gustafson
The slow march toward winter at Lake Tahoe this year is starting to make last winter seem like a distant memory. However, reflecting back on a year of both challenges and wins for the lake and our communities, it would be impossible to leave out the 70-year record snowfall Tahoe received last winter. The crushing series of atmospheric rivers brought emergency conditions that tested the basin, but when it came down to it, we saw people and agencies digging in to help one another dig out.
The lake itself also experienced rare events. Not only did Emerald Bay freeze completely over for the first time in 30 years, in February researchers working with the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) witnessed a full depth mix of the lake that briefly produced some of the clearest surface water imaginable. The natural process of the lake “flipping” helps clarity, but as climate change continues affecting the ecosystem, it is happening less often. Fortunately, for the last 26 years the Lake Tahoe Environmental Improvement Program (EIP) has brought together over 80 partners to increase our region’s resilience to climate change. EIP partners have completed hundreds of forest health, transportation, and water quality projects like the California Tahoe Conservancy’s Upper Truckee River Marsh restoration project that restored the stream channel and flood plain in Lake Tahoe’s largest marsh ecosystem.
Progress in fire and fuels management can be seen in the acres of powerline resilience corridor projects around the basin, which are building upon the more than 500 acres of powerline corridor work completed in 2022. Also, more than 36,000 logs from the Caldor Fire have been delivered to a new sawmill just 10 miles from the Tahoe Basin in Carson City, Nev. The mill is a partnership between Tahoe Forest Products, LLC and an affiliate of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California that will help make Tahoe communities safer by providing a viable location to deliver excess forest fuels from forest resilience projects in the region. The TRPA Governing Board this year also opened a process for a small-scale biomass facility pilot project at South Tahoe Refuse that could be an important start to unlocking renewable energy in Tahoe’s forests.
More progress on lake clarity is coming from environmental redevelopment projects every year. In March, the Governing Board approved a reduced Waldorf Astoria project in Crystal Bay that will result in a 90 percent reduction in sediment runoff into Lake Tahoe from the site. On the South Shore in June, the free Lake Link microtransit service launched ahead of the much-celebrated opening of the Tahoe Blue Event Center. Along with TART Connect service across North Lake Tahoe, since 2021 more than 760,000 free microtransit rides have significantly reduced vehicle miles traveled in the basin.
This year also saw the culmination of several years of public input and partnership building around outdoor recreation and tourism and transportation improvements. TRPA helped launch the first-ever Lake Tahoe Destination Stewardship Plan in June that brought together 18 public land management, non-profit, and destination management organizations. The group has already established a destination stewardship council to help foster a tourism economy that gives back through more than 30 actions that benefit our lake and communities. TRPA also approved a critical parking lot improvement project by the USDA Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit on Tahoe’s popular East Shore recreation corridor that will improve safety and reduce roadside parking. Major ski resorts, including Palisades Tahoe and Vail’s Tahoe resorts, are launching parking management programs this winter to reduce roadway backups and get more people using transit and microtransit to get to the resorts.
Finally, TRPA and partners made important progress tackling the affordable housing crisis deeply affecting the entire region. The agency approved a 100-bed student housing project on the Lake Tahoe Community College campus earlier this year, and construction is well underway on the 248-unit Sugar Pine Village workforce housing project in South Lake Tahoe.
Next Wednesday, December 13, the TRPA Governing Board will consider targeted policy changes that could remove barriers to workforce housing in the region. TRPA has guided a public process for more than two years to review these policies and they have received both concern and letters of support. The policies are only one solution needed to lower costs to construct housing for local workers and families. I encourage everyone to learn more about the policy changes and get involved in the process at trpa.gov/housing.
May our incredible progress continue in 2024 and many years to come!
Cindy Gustafson is Placer County District 5 Supervisor and Chair of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Governing Board.
By Julie Regan
In this season of giving thanks, we need only take in the incredible lake and mountains around us to see what we have to appreciate. Surrounded as we are by one of the most breathtaking places on Earth, it’s important to take time to appreciate it. In our day-to-day, the lake seems to face insurmountable threats while our communities work to overcome multiple challenges. Yet from a clear vantage, Lake Tahoe inspires every one of us to take part in its protection and to stay focused on the challenges of our time.
The big picture is especially important right now as we emerge from the pandemic and face an unprecedented housing crisis. Community concerns about traffic, fire evacuation, and demands on recreational visitation propelled our research and analysis staff at the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) to dig into data from the most recent U.S. Census survey, traffic and roadways, and climate change research to ensure our projects and plans are backed by the best available science.
The reports paint a picture of a region in transition. Lake Tahoe’s permanent population has only increased by about 200 people since the last census in 2010 but has dropped by 7,000 overall since the year 2000. The sudden decline of gaming as Tahoe’s major draw in the early 2000s also brought the loss of about 8,000 jobs, which has led to school closures, given way to a rise in second homeownership, and eroded support for local businesses.
In that time, Lake Tahoe also changed from an area with diverse housing options and growing families, to communities that are 40 to 80 percent second homes with a full-time population that the census shows is now mostly over the age of 55. As property values have soared, smaller workforce housing and multi-family projects are being priced out, along with the people who should both live and work in the basin.
A problem this complex requires many people working on many solutions. For its part, TRPA is supporting affordable and workforce housing projects and is currently seeking input on a targeted set of policy changes to make it more cost effective to redevelop properties into apartment buildings, duplexes, and triplexes for local workers, and to encourage infill development in walkable areas.
These targeted amendments would only apply to affordable and achievable deed-restricted housing and would allow one extra floor of height in town centers around the basin, and flexibility with other development standards that affect housing affordability. Importantly, all existing caps on development in Tahoe will remain in place and these homes must meet the same strict water quality protections as other construction projects. Hearings on the proposed amendments are scheduled for the next two TRPA Governing Board meetings in November and December and we would like to hear from you. All the information is at trpa.gov/housing.
In considering these changes, we cannot lose sight of what is happening to local workers, families, seasonal employees, and local businesses. Maintaining the status quo in workforce housing options is not acceptable in a region where assessed property values have hit $30 billion. TRPA and our housing partners in the basin must continue innovating to support vibrant, sustainable communities.
Sustainable Tourism and Transportation
Even though we all sit in traffic on peak days at Tahoe, comprehensive data are showing the number of vehicles per day entering and leaving the basin is nearly the same as it was between 1997 and 2005, and travel times around the basin in 2022 were far below their peak in 2017. What is changing is where people are going and what they are doing.
As Lake Tahoe’s gaming-backed visitation economy has declined, an outdoor recreation-based economy has risen. Rather than full parking lots at resort hotels, nearly the same number of vehicles from the early 2000s are at trailheads, beaches, and lining roadsides. More visitors are coming up for the day, often to escape climate-driven heat waves in surrounding areas. These new patterns are making Tahoe feel more crowded in certain locations where locals used to have more secluded access.
Lake Tahoe’s transportation and recreation infrastructure simply wasn’t ready for this shift. In response, TRPA and our destination stewardship partners have been advancing holistic corridor management plans along Tahoe’s busiest roadways. These plans replace roadside parking with mobility hubs and transit, extend and connect trails, improve safety, and add technology to communicate with drivers and reduce peak demand. Progress in the Nevada State Route 28 corridor on the East Shore is promising, but more work is needed in all corridors around the lake, and we must stay laser focused on delivering transportation improvements to Tahoe.
Above all, let’s keep working together to take care of Tahoe, appreciate what we have, and be respectful in our discourse. On this Veterans Day, I am profoundly grateful for those who have served our nation as wars are being waged around the globe. I hope you will join me in thanking America’s veterans for the sacrifices they’ve made to protect our nation, no matter the cost.
Julie Regan is Executive Director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.
By Julie Regan
This summer I had the pleasure of meeting with community members around the lake through a series of TRPA Talks that were both enlightening and inspiring. As I approach completion of my first year as Executive Director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA), I am reflecting on the issues that are top of mind in our community and am grateful for the kindred spirits that are passionate about Lake Tahoe.
The talks were enlightening because I was able to see the connections that TRPA’s work has to our communities’ and the lake’s greatest needs; and inspiring because, even though I have been at TRPA for 20 years, I was reminded how critical the agency’s role in the region remains.
Just as the Lake Tahoe Basin is connected environmentally, our communities are experiencing many of the same challenges from north to south and east to west around the basin. While the concerns are significant, so is the common ground from which we can build. There is also significant alignment between concerns and TRPA’s strategic priorities set by our volunteer 15-member Governing Board.
The shortage of affordable housing was part and parcel of every talk. The housing crisis is harming the lake as more workers commute into the basin, and as I heard from many of you, it is impacting the fabric of our communities. TRPA and our housing partners are bringing forward solutions in many shapes and sizes, from subsidized, deed-restricted workforce housing projects to regional changes to encourage these privately funded projects. In our role as the region’s bi-state land-use agency, TRPA is updating policies to encourage more affordable and workforce housing investments that also bring water quality and transportation improvements.
This fall, TRPA planners are bringing forward targeted improvements to design standards such as land coverage, building height, and allowed density that will lower the cost to build multi-family housing for local workers. These changes would only apply to deed-restricted homes. Modernizing our land-use policies is an important step, but much larger solutions are needed. TRPA will be scaling up in the coming year to address equity issues and build the region’s capacity to deliver both housing and climate change solutions.
Keeping Tahoe Moving
Traffic congestion on the basin’s roadways is a concern we all share. Transportation is a cross-cutting issue where concerns about air and water quality, safety, equity, tourism, and climate resilience come together. Through the Lake Tahoe Environmental Improvement Program, basin partners have completed significant bike and pedestrian, transit, and roadway safety improvements in recent years. Each of these projects brings the vision of a safe and interconnected transportation system closer to reality. TRPA is helping increase the pace of projects coming forward by leading broad-based coordination among corridor management agencies and bringing millions of dollars to the basin from federal and state grants.
The bi-state compact that formed TRPA more than 50 years ago envisioned the kind of partnership we are leading in transportation today. In Tahoe’s most visited recreation corridors, partners are implementing projects to reduce roadside parking, increase transit and trail use, and lay the framework for reservation systems to better manage peak demand.
Restoration and Reilience
With the news of the devastating wildfires in Maui, emergency response and evacuation preparedness are a top priority for everyone who lives in a fire-prone area like Lake Tahoe. Partners on the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team have so far treated 92,000 acres of forest and conducted more than 63,000 defensible space evaluations to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire to our communities. Some of this work helped save Lake Tahoe from the Caldor Fire in 2021 that led to the evacuation of more than 30,000 people from the South Shore.
In partnership with the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team, TRPA is taking part in communication and coordination work among emergency management agencies. Like the improvements TRPA helped make after the 2007 Angora Fire, staff is working with basin fire chiefs post-Caldor Fire to find new ways to improve coordination. The top priority for TRPA is to continue supporting major forest health and resilience projects, including those that help keep evacuation corridors safe.
These are a few of the connections I made during our TRPA Talks this year and I look forward to more as the leaves continue to turn and we head into the winter season. I want to thank everyone who came out for sharing your stories and suggestions. To stay up to date on our strategic priorities and future TRPA talks, sign up for our eNews.
Julie Regan is Executive Director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency