Development sparks call for Tahoe protection

Tahoe Keys aerial by DT

Tahoe Keys aerial by DT

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE -- Development in the largest wetland at Lake Tahoe Basin began in the mid-1950s. The idea behind the Tahoe Keys was to make something useful out of a marsh.

But channels in the Keys turned green as homes were put up for sale, and people realized construction had occurred on some of the most sensitive land in the basin.

"At that time we thought the Tahoe Keys was going to be a wonderful thing," said Coe Swobe, who served in the Nevada Legislature from 1963 to 1974. "It was developed by Dillingham Corp. from Hawaii and we thought it would be another beautiful resort area with palm trees. It was only later we realized we shouldn't be building in a marsh area that filters sediment from the lake."

Developers pulled the plug on the Keys project before the subdivision was finished. Today it covers about a quarter of what was an 1,100-acre marsh.

Awareness of Tahoe's sensitive environment emerged because of projects such as the Tahoe Keys. Roughly 10 years later, a bistate agreement between California and Nevada formed an organization to prevent similar mistakes. Named the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, it is an organization that even today can't be compared to anything because its mission to protect a lake split between two states is unique.

Its infancy lies in the Lake Tahoe Area Council, in 1959. The council created regional planning groups for each jurisdiction within the basin.

Together the groups formed the Tahoe Regional Planning Commission. By 1964 it had drafted a plan including a four-lane highway around Tahoe and a bridge across Emerald Bay.

The bridge and the highway were never built. The League to Save Lake Tahoe, then known as the Tahoe Improvement and Conservation Association, fought such proposals.

But the League couldn't control the swell of development about to crash onto Tahoe shores. And neither could the 61 agencies that had some authority to regulate building.

"It was just utter chaos," Swobe said. "There was no uniformity for planning and zoning."

Conflicting regulations resulted in projects like a string of condominiums going in along the shore of Crystal Bay. The buildings blocked views of the lake.

"That really irritated people," said Jim Baetge, TRPA executive director from 1994 to 2000. "That triggered Nevada."

Casinos on the Nevada side of South Shore were gradually becoming larger. Harvey Gross, a former butcher from Sacramento, expanded his gambling operation to include a tower in 1963.

By 1965, the League and the Sierra Club caught the ears of legislators in both states. The lawmakers formed the Lake Tahoe Joint Study Committee. It released a report in 1967 that called for the creation of a bistate regional planning agency.

The report determined the states needed a regional agency to help eliminate the conflicting regulations and control growth at the basin. The committee's report said that if California and Nevada did not work to create the agency, the basin would likely come under federal authority.

Waiting for the joint agency to take shape, California and Nevada each formed a planning agency.

In 1967, Paul Laxalt became governor of Nevada. Ronald Reagan took office as governor in California the same year. Laxalt grew up in Carson City and spent many summers at Tahoe. He made it a point to talk with Reagan about the fragile nature of Tahoe.

"They had this phobia the lake would turn gray on their watch," said Swobe. "And they didn't want that to happen."

Swobe, a state senator at the time, worked on the legislation for Nevada. It became known as the Swobe bill. Assemblyman Edwin Z'berg introduced legislation in California.

"We had many meetings and there were some sharp differences," said Swobe.

Nevada feared the proposed agency would tax the Stateline casinos out of existence because the Lake Tahoe Joint Study Committee recommended the agency have the power to levy taxes. California wanted more lenient building restrictions, Swobe said, because it owned two-thirds of the land in the basin.

Bills passed in both states in 1968. The following year a bistate compact was ratified by Congress and signed by President Richard Nixon.

"It's identical legislation," Baetge said. "The reason it goes to Congress to ratify it is so the two states can't change it."

The first meeting of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency took place in Carson City at the Nevada Supreme Court building on March 17, 1970. The agency was not an overnight solution.

A major glitch emerged in the permitting process. If a project was not approved or rejected within 60 days, it was automatically approved. Hence, projects continued to be approved haphazardly until the late 1970s. Court action led to a revision of the compact in 1980.

"1970 to 1980 was like the war that had to happen," said Baetge. "The only way we got ahead was to go to court."

What sent California to "war" were plans to construct four casinos and accompanying parking garages in Stateline. None was ever constructed.

The projects were challenged in court by the California Attorney General's Office, the League, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund and the U.S. Department of Justice. The lawsuits resulted in revision of the 1969 compact, a process that took about two years.

"It was a matter of hammering out language we felt comfortable with and they felt comfortable with to preserve the lake and preserve the local voice and state voice," said Robert List, governor of Nevada from 1979 to 1983. "I was back and forth to Sacramento regularly and (Gov. Jerry) Brown and I were on the phone. We started selling it to our Nevada legislators and explaining it to the media."

Changes required that the agency's governing board contain local and state representatives. The revision also eliminated the 60-day rule from the process.

"It created a better voting structure," Baetge said. "One with more state influence than local influence. You can fairly say it was flipped from the way it was in the 1970s."

It also created, according to Swobe, marching orders for the basin that remain in effect today.

"It defined the goals that we're working on now," said Swobe, who serves on the TRPA Governing Board. "It spelled out specific areas for the agency to tackle like water quality, transportation and scenic ... it cleaned up the agency and gave specific items for the agency to direct its attention to."


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