Bi-State Compact

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A Century of Concern

More than a hundred years ago, conservationists voiced concern about the impacts of tourism, ranching, and logging on the Lake Tahoe environment. Their idea to make Lake Tahoe a national forest or national park didn’t gain wide support in Washington D.C., primarily because much of the land in the Basin was already privately owned and had been developed or logged. Even then, many thought it was too late to preserve Lake Tahoe.

But conservationists continued lobbying for environmental protection as logging and ranching waned, ski resorts expanded, and Stateline casinos went high-rise.

The debate came to a climax in the late 1960s after two decades of rapid growth. The governors and lawmakers in California and Nevada approved a bi-state compact that created a regional planning agency to oversee development at Lake Tahoe. In 1969, the United States Congress ratified the agreement and created the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

The Bi-State Compact as revised in 1980, gave TRPA authority to adopt environmental quality standards, called thresholds, and to enforce ordinances designed to achieve the thresholds. The TRPA Governing Board adopted the thresholds in 1982.

The Governing Board adopted a long-range regional plan in April of 1984. The same day, two parties filed suit in federal court claiming they were not convinced the plan would adequately protect the Lake Tahoe environment. The judge effectively ordered a moratorium on new building at Lake Tahoe. The Executive Director of TRPA then called together a consensus group to hammer out another regional plan. After three years of negotiations, the lawsuit was settled and the TRPA Governing Board adopted the 1987 Regional Plan in effect today.

TRPA was the first bi-state regional environmental planning agency in the country. The survival of TRPA, despite the controversy over the last 20 years, is a tribute to the men and women who had the vision and the courage to try something that had never been tried before. Preservation of the environment is a cause that is now widely supported by both residents and visitors to the Lake Tahoe Region.

The Bi-State Compact and Regional Plan

The Bi-State Compact calls for the Regional Plan to establish a balance between the natural environment and the human-made environment. The Plan emphasizes an improvement in the quality of development in the Region and in the quality of the natural environment.

Environmental Thresholds Carrying Capacities set environmental goals and standards for the Lake Tahoe Basin and indirectly define the capacity of the Region to accommodate additional land development. Land development may negatively affect attainment of an environmental threshold. Special efforts, such as mitigation measures, must be taken to reduce impacts.

The Regional Plan Goals and Policies document presents the overall approach to meeting the Thresholds. A key component of the Plan is the land use element. The land use element of the Plan identifies the fundamental philosophies directing land use and development in the Lake Tahoe Basin.

It addresses topics like suitable development locations; maintenance of the environmental, social, physical, and economic well being of the Region; and coordination with local, state, and federal requirements.

The Land Use Element of the Lake Tahoe Regional Plan includes the following Sub elements: land use, housing, noise, natural hazards, air quality, water quality, and community design. The Land Use sub elements intend to establish land use goals and policies that will ensure the desired equilibrium and attain and maintain the environmental thresholds within a specific time schedule.

A number of regulations are needed to implement and enforce policies identified in the Plan. The TRPA Regulatory Code compiles all of the laws and ordinances needed to implement the Goals and Policies.

Related to the Code are Plan Area Statements and Community Plans. Plan Area Statements provide a description of land use for particular areas in the Basin. The Lake Tahoe Region is divided into more than 175 separate Plan Areas. For each Plan Area, a “statement” is made as to how that particular area should be regulated to achieve environmental and land use objectives. Community plans are similar to Plan Area Statements, but focus on specific areas where humans dwell.

The popularity of the Lake Tahoe Basin has created an altered watershed. The positive economic effects of popularity are shadowed by conditions that have the potential to harm Lake Tahoe water resources. Planning land use to accommodate economic growth and vitality ensures that protective measures are taken to maintain a healthy watershed.

Everything we do to the land in the Lake Tahoe Basin can positively or adversely affect lake water clarity. This means that activities occurring on the land, such as applying fertilizers and pesticides, have a high potential to affect the Lake’s water quality. Sixty-three streams flow into Lake Tahoe and are the invisible threads that connect the Lake to our homes and us. Everything we use or produce in the watershed — sewage, fertilizers, pesticides, motor oil, and animal wastes — can be carried into Lake Tahoe.

Land use corresponds to the socio-economic description of areas used for residential, industrial or commercial, farming or forestry, and recreational or conservation purposes. In order to better understand concepts of land use and land cover, and how they relate to the Lake Tahoe Basin, there are three important terms to know:

    • Land cover addresses the physical characteristics or make up of the earth’s surface and describes whether land is comprised of vegetation, water, desert, ice, or human activities such as buildings, mines, and roads.
    • Land use addresses the main activity occurring on the covered land. It is often an activity dictated by humans. For example, a forest might be used for logging or recreation and tourism. In this example, the land uses are logging and recreation and tourism. The land cover is forest.
    • Land capability is also referred to as land suitability and addresses the type and extent of land development, if any, appropriate for a particular land area. Land capability analysis identifies soil type and slope of the land to determine the extent of land use. Land capability is an important topic in the Lake Tahoe Basin as it determines where new development can occur and to what extent.

Since the late 1970s, TRPA and other regulatory agencies in the Tahoe Region have used the land capability classification system known as the “Bailey system” to determine whether owners of vacant parcels may obtain building permits for new residences or businesses. The Bailey system was replaced in vacant residential parcels with an alternate concept known as the Individual Parcel Evaluation System (IPES).

Today, federal, state, and local governments regulate growth and development through statutory law. Human impacts, such as run-off from buildings and roads and erosion from recreation trails and ski resorts, can seriously harm Lake Tahoe’s legendary cobalt-blue water clarity and cause water quality deterioration. Land use measures being taken to protect Lake Tahoe water quality are regulations and programs that include:

  • Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Bi-State Compact
  • Environmental Thresholds Carrying Capacities
  • Regional Plan Goals and Policies
  • Related Plans and Reference Documents (e.g., related to transportation planning), and
  • Laws of other jurisdictions (e.g., county, municipal, state, and federal).