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Who’s protecting Tahoe? Regulatory agency enamored with development, say critics


Dana Gentry, Nevada Current
January 19, 2024

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, charged since 1969 with protecting Lake Tahoe from overdevelopment, has lost sight of its mission and lacks accountability according to a number of California and Nevada residents, including Nevada Secretary of State Francisco Aguilar, a member of the TRPA’s governing board.  

Aguilar is the only member of the 15-person board to vote last month against sweeping regional development changes designed to increase density near town centers in the name of providing housing to workers at all income levels.   

The TRPA says the changes could result in 40% savings on rent by allowing unlimited density, buildings up to five stories, and exemptions for standard parking requirements in certain areas. 

“TRPA is a complicated organization,” Aguilar said during a phone interview. “It is straddling two states, and straddling multiple local jurisdictions that have conflicting priorities from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and state to state. My responsibility as an elected official in Nevada is to represent the citizens of Nevada.”

The board has seven members from California, and seven from Nevada, many of them elected officials, as well as one appointee from the federal government. 

Aguilar, while alone on the board in opposing the changes, was in lock step with dozens of Tahoe residents who attended a marathon five-hour meeting last month to voice their concerns about development plans they fear will cater to the wealthy. Housing for low-income residents “was not the priority” says Aguilar.

“In our view, TRPA, which has overseen housing for decades, has ensured the Lake is now almost fully built out and there’s not much affordable nor workforce housing to show for it,” Ron Grassi, a former attorney and longtime Tahoe resident, said during an interview. 

Grassi points to the influx of tourists to Lake Tahoe during and after the COVID era, as well as the Caldor fire in 2021, which burned 221,835 acres over 69 days, destroyed 1,003 structures, and required the evacuation of more than 50,000 residents in the area, as arguments against more development without a new environmental impact study. 

Julie Regan, executive director of the TRPA, acknowledges residents “feel like they’re seeing more development. There is a huge disconnect of what people feel in their day to day and what’s happening.” 

Development in Tahoe, which is capped at 130 single-family homes a year, has slowed, she says, and the population has declined, a development Regan attributes to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s embrace of Native American gambling in California, which resulted in fewer gamblers visiting Tahoe. 

“Our casino jobs started disappearing,” she says, adding gamblers have since been replaced by outdoor enthusiasts who travel by carloads to enjoy the lake.

“The strategy of the regional plan is to have more development concentrated in town centers, where you have shopping and a concentration of services, and less impacts on neighborhoods,” says Regan, who says some 1,000 Tahoe residents do not own a car.  

 Icy covered multi-use paths. (Photo courtesy Pamela Tsigdinos)

Developers of deed-restricted units will be allowed to offer less than one parking space per household in a basin that lacks significant mass transit and where snow and ice can render walking or biking hazardous for about half of the year.   

“In transportation, our emphasis is on how we move growing numbers of visitors,” the TRPA’s former executive director Joanna Marchetta acknowledged last year to a Nevada legislative interim committee charged with oversight of the TRPA’s budget, programs, activities, and accountability. “The region’s disconnected transportation network gives people very few options to driving and underserves the need of residents and visitors.” 

But Regan says Tahoe residents and visitors are increasingly using paths for walking and biking, even in the winter. 

The TRPA suggests the basin lacks 2,735 affordable housing units for those earning less than 80% of the area median income (AMI) of $96,500 per four-person household; 1,512 units in the moderate category for those earning between 80% and 120% of AMI; and 1,575 units in the achievable housing category (which does not exist in federal housing regulation) for renters earning no more than 120% of AMI, and for buyers with assets totalling no more than two times the AMI. Individuals buying multi-family housing units are exempted from the asset caps.  

“Issuing deed-restricted residential development rights to large projects allows local housing partners to successfully access state and federal grants and land donations for deed-restricted ‘affordable,’ and ‘moderate’ income housing,” says the TRPA’s website, while deed restrictions on ‘achievable’ units ease the burden for the “missing middle,”  those who earn too much to qualify for assistance but not enough to purchase on their own. 

“My priority is the frontline worker in Tahoe, and that’s workforce housing,” Aguilar told the Current. “That’s not affordable housing. That’s not achievable housing. That’s approved workforce housing.”

“I think everyone agrees we need employee housing,” longtime Tahoe real estate agent John Eppolito told the TRPA during public comment. “If that’s what we need, why don’t we just build employee housing?”

Regan says workforce housing will be prioritized as part of the regional plan but critics are doubtful. 

“We have $2.5 to $4.5 million condos approved on land in Incline Village that was supposed to be for employee housing,” Eppolito says, noting that Washoe County Commissioner Alexis Hill paved the way for the 947 Tahoe project – luxury condos up to 4,000 square feet on land previously designated for affordable housing and mixed use development.  “We don’t need more multimillion dollar condos up to 65 feet tall, and up to 300 feet long, priced up to maybe $5 million. I don’t know one local who is not profiting from this plan who is for it.”  

Developers have argued that without increased density and other concessions, projects don’t pencil out.  

“I’m currently working on a site in Incline Village for achievable housing,” developer Randy Fletcher told the TRPA, adding without the changes to development standards “there would be no way possible or no path forward for this development. Incline Village desperately needs achievable and workforce housing.” 

A search of Airbnb.com returns “more than 1,000” vacation rental properties in Incline Village, but TRPA, to the dismay of some residents, has placed no restrictions on the conversion of thousands of housing units lost to the short-term rental market. 

Regan says almost all short-term rentals are located in single-family neighborhoods, not near town centers.  

‘If we build it, they will come’

Tourism drives the Tahoe economy, generating $5 billion in direct economic activity a year and twice as much when including indirect benefits, says the TRPA. Tourism also drives TRPA policy, and in some cases, the lack of it, say critics. 

“When you talk about tourism dollars, how many of those actually go back to the local communities versus the state or the county?” Aguilar asked TRPA staffers in November. 

“Where all of those dollars trickle down in terms of tax dollars in Washoe County that are for hotels, what percentage of that stays in Tahoe, what percentage of that goes back to the county budget and how it trickles out is something we do need better data on and better understanding of,” responded staffer Devin Middlebrook, who said the agency is “talking I think about doing more detailed economic studies to see how long dollars stay in the region.” 

Asked by Aguilar when such a study might come to fruition, Middlebrook responded sooner rather than later. But in response to questions from the Current, he said the “idea of economic analysis for our outdoor economy is still very early in the brainstorming phase. No funding partners have been identified yet.”

“If TRPA wants it to be a priority, it’ll get done,” says Aguilar.

Regan was not aware if TRPA had found a funding source for the study, estimated at $200,000. 

Aguilar says he’s primarily concerned about the safety of citizens, as well as tourists. 

“My biggest fear is that a child and their parents roll up to the lake on State Route 28. They pull over and are lucky enough to get a parking space, and a kid’s going to open that door and run towards the water and there’s going to be a car coming 60 miles an hour, and we’re going to have a loss of life,” he says. “We have to fix State Route 28 but it always goes back to funding.  Where is the funding? How is it being spent? How has it been allocated? Whose responsibility is it? And so that’s really where my questions are coming from.”

Tahoe officials estimate 2 million visitors spent a collective 17 million days in the basin in 2022. 

“Climate change is causing wildfire danger unlike any we have experienced, and the Caldor Fire from last September is emblazoned in our mind’s eye,” Marchetta acknowledged to lawmakers last year. “The lake temperatures are warming, which is opening new threats from invasive species, and the pandemic-driven outdoor recreation demand is off the charts.”

Marchetta told lawmakers the “increasing popularity and use of Lake Tahoe is now negatively impacting some of our natural resources, our travel at peak times, and the quality of the recreation experience.”

“I used to tell my clients that Tahoe will never be overbuilt because we have the TRPA’s protection,” Eppolito, who has sold real estate for 26 years in Tahoe,, told the Current. “Now I think I’ve been lying. In my opinion TRPA has lost its way.” 

Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nevada Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Hugh Jackson for questions: info@nevadacurrent.com. Follow Nevada Current on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Nevada Current under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.