By Joanne S. Marchetta
In the blur of mixed pandemic news, it can be hard to see that we are making progress and will assuredly come out the other side of this world-altering hardship. Since the first COVID closure and the compounding reports of virus spread almost a year ago, Tahoe communities have been challenged in unprecedented ways. We have come to rely on one another’s strengths to tap our own resilience. Now for first time, the vaccine roll out shows us a break in the clouds—a place to fix our gaze. While there may be turbulence as we fly through the weather ahead, we can now see a time when we will have overcome the worst of it.
At the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA), we have used this time to build on our strengths and shore up the foundations of regional sustainability. Two pillars of community sustainability—housing and transportation—have been TRPA’s steadfast focus despite being walled in by the Hollywood Squares of virtual meeting rooms throughout the pandemic.
With the most common COVID prescription being to get into the great outdoors, Lake Tahoe’s roadways and popular recreation spots are becoming more strained by growing visitation and record numbers. The region’s disjointed transportation network gives people limited options to driving and underserves commuters and residents. At the same time, rising home prices and new demands in the housing market continue to push workers out of the basin. The interplay of transportation and housing is having across-the-board impacts to Tahoe. Traffic congestion impacts quality of life and the visitor experience. And more of Tahoe’s workers need to commute from outside the basin, which increases greenhouse gas emissions, reduces diversity in our communities, and challenges the year-round sustainability of local businesses.
During this time, our team has been making significant progress to bolster Lake Tahoe’s comeback. In response to surveys showing outpaced demand for affordable workforce housing, TRPA and our partners are acting to deliver new housing units as well as incentives to make others more feasible. In South Lake Tahoe, our Governing Board last month approved a 248-unit workforce housing project south of the “Y” on surplus land donated by the California Tahoe Conservancy. The collaborative project brought together the developer and the non-profit St. Joseph Community Land Trust with the Conservancy, the City of South Lake Tahoe, El Dorado County, and numerous other basin partners. On the North Shore, Placer County, with the Tahoe Truckee Airport District as a funding partner, acquired 11 acres in Dollar Point for a future project to increase the availability of mixed income housing. We can build on collaborations like these to keep making substantial progress in meeting our resident workers’ needs.
New projects alone are not enough. We formed the Tahoe Living housing working group last year to bring housing advocates, the public, and all the needed players together to suggest immediate policy changes to make more affordable units possible throughout the region. Improving standards on height, density, parking, and land coverage are now priorities to encourage more investment in affordable housing. Placer County set the example by working with us to update its Tahoe Basin Area Plan so that most properties there can apply for an accessory dwelling unit, or ADU, to rent to full-time residents. We are working to expand that allowance to the rest of the basin.
While we may not readily think about transportation options as part of our quality of life, what choices there are to move around Tahoe are as much a part of building sustainable communities as quality affordable housing. Our transportation team has brought forward broadly supported updates to Tahoe’s Regional Transportation Plan for adoption in the coming months with new and better strategies for technology, more frequent transit, more connected bike and pedestrian trails around the region, and parking demand management at congested hot spots.
Realizing all the projects in the transportation plan will require expanding our options beyond traditional transportation funding sources. To move from planning great projects to implementing them, a Bi-State Consultation on Transportation for Lake Tahoe has been meeting to work on sustainable, regional funding strategies.
These are undoubtedly bold initiatives to improve residents’ quality of life as well as the long-term sustainability of our communities. To achieve these goals will bring to bear epic collaboration, shared strength, and readiness for change. I hope you take a moment to look forward, to envision our communities out of the clouds of our current crises, and to see the opportunities that lie ahead.
–Joanne S. Marchetta is the Executive Director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency