Lahontan the broken link in the bike trail chain

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As local agencies work to complete a cohesive network of bike trails on the north shore of Lake Tahoe, they are finding their most formidable obstacle is navigating the stringent permitting process of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The most immediate case before the water board is the Tahoe City Public Utility District's proposed lakeside bike trail through Tahoe City.

With bike trails playing a prominent role in the Tahoe Basin Regional Plan and with local agencies looking increasingly to bike trails as a means of reducing traffic congestion around the lake, a handful of local agencies are keeping close tabs on the debate.

The utility district's proposed lakeside bike trail would pass through stream environment zones along the lake in Tahoe City. These zones, an important component of water quality, are tightly regulated by the water board.

Only under certain exceptions is one allowed to build in such a zone. Lahontan permits building in a stream zone for recreation projects that "by their very nature must be sited in a stream environment zone." An example of such an item would be a boat ramp.

The water board staff has been inclined to view bike trails as a recreation item. As such, since a bike trail does not by its nature have to be located in an stream environment zone, the utility district was having difficulty getting approval.

At a March workshop, an array of agencies and residents made a convincing case that bike trails amounted to a public service, which would also allow exceptions for building in a stream environment zone.

"I would make the case that this project (the utility district bike trail) is certainly clearly a transportation project and should be considered as such," Jennifer Merchant, director of the Transportation Management Association, said. "Funding for bike trail projects come directly from federal, state and local sources that are for transportation. Air quality program funds bike trails, Caltrans funds bike trials, and I can tell you that they wouldn't be in that business if they weren't transportation projects."

The Lahontan board of directors seemed convinced bike trails could fit a public service category. Nearly everyone present came away from the workshop believing the board supported bike trails, and that bike trails could in certain cases fit the public service category.

Until last week that was where things remained.

ThenLahontan staff sent a letter to the utility district regarding a portion of the lakeside bike trail.

"The project would not meet exemption for public recreation facilities because bike trails, 'by their very nature', need not go in (stream zones)," reads the letter. "Even under exemptions for public service facilities, which is less applicable to this project, the finding must be made that there is 'no reasonable alternative."

The letter is being waved by some as a red flag pointing to staff's disregard of their board's direction. Lahontan board Executive Director Harold Singer maintains Lahontan supports bike trails. "But we need to do them in an environmentally sensitive way," he added.

The Lahontan control board is a regulatory agency responsible for water quality up and down the eastern slope of the Sierra.

Some see the conflict as more of a miscommunication between agencies.

"I think Lahontan staff thinks it is indeed bending over backwards to accommodate these bike trails," said one observer. "But I can also see why others think Lahontan is being difficult."


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