Legislators weigh in on TRPA's effectiveness

Editor's note: This is the last in a series of Tahoe Daily Tribune articles examining the foundation and operation of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE -- Views of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency's performance on regulating land use have become as diverse as the character of the basin on the four sides of the lake.

Lawmaker reactions are almost evenly split along party lines -- with some calling for dissolving the agency to others claiming it has fulfilled its role.

When asked for a quasi-report card, about half the lawmakers and stakeholders initially balked at giving their views of the agency's job performance, with the office of Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., passing on the question.

Some people pointed to the agency's clout and power as reasons not to criticize it.

But most agreed that, while it's a hard job, there's room for improvement on finding that balance between protecting the environment and keeping up with progress.

Environmental groups say the agency has failed to do enough to protect a national treasure like Lake Tahoe, but some admit the ecology connected to air and water quality would be far worse if the agency never existed. The 1969 Compact serves as its guiding principles.

The League to Save Lake Tahoe believes the agency could be more of an effective agency, but admits keeping the lake pristine would be a harder chore if the agency didn't regulate issues like land use.

Rochelle Nason, the League's executive director, pointed to the attitude about the lake in the 1970s in which the overall sentiment was that the lake was headed on an environmental downward spiral with encroaching development.

Nason pointed to the 1987 regional plan as one of agency's landmark successes at reducing excessive build-out that came to a head in the 1970s.

In terms of specific areas of improvement, the league argues that the agency should oversee more than land use.

"There's so much existing development that was created without any consideration of environmental issues. They need to be more proactive in land-use management and with enforcement, certainly," Nason said.

Michael Donahoe, Sierra Club conservation co-chairman, invited Tahoe residents to "put your toes in the water" and feel the algae that's collected from sediment to find out the lake needs aggressive protection.

Donahoe said the misconception comes when critics believe agency should get a consensus before moving forward. He calls the feat "impossible because all the stakeholders are never in the room together. The purpose should rather be to gather information from as many stakeholders as possible."

But the perception exists that the agency is a bureaucracy bogged down by trivial matters -- especially during the permitting process.

Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City, couldn't agree more. He questions whether the agency should dictate the color of homes situated next to the lake, calling the practice of enforcing the scenic threshold as "nitpicking."

The scenic threshold is an environmental guideline that enforces and enhances the view around the lake. An example -- the agency may turn down a permit application for a home with shining shingles visible across the lake.

"I do think we need an agency to review what goes on at Lake Tahoe so we can maintain the environmental quality there, and I believe the No. 1 mission of the TRPA should be the clarity of the lake," Leslie said. "But I think they all get tied up on things that have nothing to do with the quality of the lake."

Leslie believed so strongly about the complaints he heard from constituents that he called for a performance audit of the agency five years ago. After issues appeared to be resolved and fewer complaints were heard in his office, Leslie thought matters had been resolved -- until recently.

The California lawmaker said he has talked to many Lake Tahoe residents lately and "no one had anything good to say." He added that many people with pending applications or agreements fear complaining on the record will lead to retribution, such as a buried permit.

State Sen. Rico Oller, R-San Andreas, followed Leslie's lead in introducing a bill in the 1997-98 session that would have prevented appointments to the agency's governing board on the California side. Assembly Bill 957, which called for elections instead, went down in defeat. Oller was an assemblyman at the time.

"Many community and government leaders in the Lake Tahoe region originally thought that TRPA might be the answer to a number of problems. But the agency is really nothing more than a layer of bureaucracy," Oller said.

Rep. John Doolittle, R-Rocklin, echoed the statement, calling the agency "a disaster."

The agency was more well-received by Democrats on the federal level.

The office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the agency is "playing an important role in the basin," but declined to elaborate further.

Her colleague across the state line, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said it has "done a pretty good job of enforcement" and supports its efforts. He sees the bistate agency as offering a mechanism to bring the two states together in agreement over the management of the lake.

Still, he acknowledges that controversy surrounds the agency.

"While some have expressed to me concerns that TRPA has overstepped (its) bounds on certain issues, it is my belief they continue to effectively carry out their intended purpose," Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Reno, said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer's, D-Calif., office recognized the difficulty in balancing stakeholder interests.

"They have to balance the interests of the community, and that's difficult," Boxer's spokesman David Sandretti said. "It's not our position to say whether it's doing a good job."

Tribune staff writer Greg Crofton contributed to this report.


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