Greenwashing Lake Tahoe
Who wouldn’t be attracted by an idyllic community that is livable, walkable, bikeable, and sustainable? This message, bringing “smart growth” to “save Lake Tahoe,” is a glowing example of carefully crafted words, framed by public relations handlers as the only answer.
Lake Tahoe may not be a National Park, but it is an “Outstanding National Resource Water” under the 1972 Clean Water Act. Both California and Nevada approved Tier 3 status of “no degradation.” The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) was created to ensure the protection of Lake Tahoe and its environment.
The original 1987 Regional Plan is currently being updated, or as some believe rewritten, using “smart growth” principles that will “restore Lake Tahoe” and create “sustainable communities.” It all sounds too good to be true, and it is.
The doctrine of “smart growth” combines principles such as compact development, hi-density, mixed-use, and transit-oriented villages that promise to reduce vehicle use. Residents can “live, work, and play” in close proximity, choosing to walk or ride bicycles instead of driving. These concepts are woven into a general narrative supporting an alternative development pattern to growth pressures normally fed by “sprawl” development.
California offers funding to implement Senator Steinberg’s SB375 intended to promote “sustainable communities” that will reduce sprawl and greenhouse gas emissions. Sacramento area planners are struggling with projected growth of 871,000 residents by 2035. The San Francisco Bay Area is planning how to accommodate 2.1 million new residents by 2035.” (California Planning and Development Report, March and June 2012) Throughout California’s metropolitan cities are legitimate full time resident population pressures.
Lake Tahoe is an entirely different kind of area. The small resident population actually declined from 62,800 in 2000 to 54,473 according to 2010 Census data. The TRPA projects the resident population will increase by about 1200 to 5900 people by 2035. So does “smart growth” even apply to Lake Tahoe?
Lake Tahoe is primarily a resort area with seasonal residents, visitors and tourists that can triple the resident population for four months of the year. About half of the 46,000 residences are only seasonally occupied.
Given the attraction to pristine alpine water and breathless mountain vistas Lake Tahoe planners must come to terms with its limited size, sensitive environment, and increasing pressure of economic interests. Ski industry operators and resort developers have now consolidated into a few very large corporations with access to Wall Street funding and quarterly profit demands. They see Lake Tahoe as an untapped economic opportunity. The film “Resorting to Madness” and the bookDownhill Slide by Hal Clifford chronicle the ski resort industry’s takeover by Wall Street.
Their vision of resort development is marketed as “smart growth,” but it is not the genuine concept. Multi-story buildings densify visitors for higher profits, unlike compact development for full time residents. The ground level commercial is comprised of expensive boutique shops for visitors rather than meeting the practical needs of residents.
These “village” resorts are not diverse communities of all ages, but are designed for temporary occupants usually on vacation. The single ownership resorts are more like Disneyland than a sustainable community. This distinction makes all the difference for the future of the Lake Tahoe Basin.
The TRPA, under pressure from ski industry resort developers, Nevada gaming interests, local governments, and local Chambers of Commerce, is facilitating large resort developments in their Regional Plan Update. This pressure intensified in 2005 and is evidenced by recently approved projects.
For example, the TRPA approved three developments based on “smart growth” principles. First was a reduction of State Highway 28 through Kings Beach (North shore) from four lanes down to two through lanes, which will actually cause traffic congestion similar to Tahoe City. Second was the approval of the massive Boulder Bay resort in Crystal Bay (next to Kings Beach). Third was the approval of a $500 million Homewood Mountain Resort, a classic ski industry real estate development at the base of the Homewood Ski Resort (West shore).
How do these projects meet the mandates of SB375? The answer is that SB375 counts only full time residents, what defines population growth in metro areas. Growth in hotel rooms, time shares and fractional condominiums is essentially “off the books.” This has led to claiming “smart growth,” complying with SB375, while increasing congestion and sprawl.
The TRPA spins these projects as “environmental redevelopment” that are necessary to ”restore Lake Tahoe” to finance what they call “environmental gain.” This term may sound new and smart but for Lake Tahoe water quality it means simply installing erosion control measures on the project site just as all projects have done since 1987. Only the spin is new.
A local group of scientists, the Tahoe Pipe Club (tahoepipeclub.com), has documented 35 urban pipes still dumping contaminated storm water directly in to Lake Tahoe. Not only is Lake Tahoe’s deep water clarity in decline, the near shore clarity has degraded to alarming levels in the last ten years. Too many environmental improvement projects are based on inadequate models rather than supported by the latest science and practical experience.
The quality of the Lake Tahoe area environment is threatened on many fronts, while the rhetoric of “smart growth” and “environmental redevelopment” continues to be asserted by the TRPA, many State and Federal agencies, local governments, and the chambers of commerce. It is “greenwashing,” plain and simple. This time the future quality of Lake Tahoe is at stake, and the world is watching.
About the author: David McClure is a 33 year Lake Tahoe resident, business owner, and developer of North Tahoe Self Storage facility. He served on the North Tahoe Public Utility District Board of Directors, and has an MBA, and is an active member of Tahoe’s conservation community.