A permit issued in June 2002 allowed developers to move portions of sand dunes to accommodate time shares at Tahoe's North Shore.
The League to Save Lake Tahoe says the Tonopalo time-share project is a colossal mistake for the environment.
Many Tahoe residents look at the permitting of such large-scale, luxury projects and see hypocrisy. In turn, that perception can influence opinions about the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and whether it is succeeding in its mission to regulate building while protecting the environment.
Residents wonder how the agency can permit time shares such as Tonopalo when they often don't have the right to put a shed in their back yard or add a deck to their house. TRPA staff doesn't deny that people who take the time to work with them, or have the money to hire consultants who know the rules and how to work within them, end up getting more of what they want.
Bob Jones, a resident of South Lake Tahoe since 1986, said he has no hope of adding a deck or cover over a walkway on the four properties he owns. He knows the TRPA will not allow him to build on more of his land.
"I just gave up," Jones, 64, said. "I talked to them, and they said I just couldn't do it, that (the property) was overbuilt. It's who you know and who you can persuade. It's horse-trading, isn't it? For the common man, it's just impossible to work with. You've got no influence."
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The Tonopalo project did get special treatment in that his staff spent dozens of hours reviewing its plans, said Lyn Barnett, chief of the Project Review Division at the TRPA. The first set of plans received by the agency were rejected based on excavation, which involved the dunes, and the visual impact of the project.
"A lot of eyes looked at it," said Barnett, noting that Placer County also reviewed the project. "We didn't allow removal of the dunes. We worked very carefully to protect the dunes. The buildings were sited to minimize the amount of sand removed."
The developers of Tonopalo demolished housing to make way for their project. That reduced the amount of land covered in the area, a goal of the TRPA to help protect water quality. The number of housing units will decrease from 34 to 19 by the time the project is finished. And, on average, the time shares will be set farther from the shore zone than the old structures.
"You used to see a large sand dune out there, now you only see condominiums," said Jon-Paul Harries, program director for the League to Save Lake Tahoe. "I find it hard to believe anybody at the TRPA finds this acceptable for Lake Tahoe. It sounds as if they are just now covering themselves and taking a defensive posture for the mistake."
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The gap between a building project of an average resident like Bob Jones and a $66 million dollar project like Tonopalo is what turns many residents against the agency.
But how can the TRPA communicate the intricacies of such a project to the public? Those interviewed for this article only agreed on one thing -- there's a communication gap between the TRPA and the people who live by its rules.
The building rules at the basin are difficult to understand. The developers of Tonopalo hired consultants to sit down with TRPA planners and figure out how the company could compensate for any impacts project would have on the environment.
Jones didn't have the budget or the time to negotiate any such deals.
"They know how to work the system," said John Marshall, lead attorney at TRPA, of the consultants and engineers hired for such projects.
Marshall said the view that TRPA allows more leeway to applicants who have money, while those with less funds have less flexibility, is true in part. Jim Baetge, executive director at the TRPA from 1994 to 2000, agrees with Marshall that that reality exists throughout the country.
"Yes, there is the ability for people with money to do what they want to do because of our system," Baetge said. "They can afford to exercise the incentives offered to the entire public. But do they get special treatment in the regulatory process? I don't think so."
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Costly projects such as the redevelopment at Park Avenue often get done because they provide an opportunity to make up for environmental wrongs of the past.
Dennis Machida, executive director of the California Tahoe Conservancy, leads an agency that funds many of the projects designed to protect the environment and provide public access around the lake. He said the redevelopment at Park Avenue is an example of what needs to happen at the basin -- a coming together of public, private and government groups to get projects on the ground.
People today may just see two huge hotels at Park Avenue, Machida said, but the project decreased the number of rooms in the area and created space for $20 million in water quality projects, which include wetlands off Ski Run Boulevard, Wildwood Avenue and behind the McDonald's near Ski Run.
TRPA staff being somewhat flexible with its rules was key to making the redevelopment project happen, said Rick Thalhammer, a deputy of the California Attorney General's Office who helped negotiate the terms for the city project in the 1980s.
"It was necessary for rules to be written for redevelopment so other good things could happen," Thalhammer said. "TRPA had to be supportive of it and was."
Like Machida, Larry Hoffman, an attorney at the North Shore, considers a broader picture when asked to ponder whether the TRPA is succeeding or failing in its job. Hoffman, a critic of the agency, says it has failed in its mission to protect the lake.
"I'm one of the serious naysayers," said Hoffman, who lost a property-rights case against TRPA after it reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002. "I've concluded after spending the last 20 years watching the agency very closely that they got off the mark early on and never got back on."
The agency gets stuck in the minutiae of the permitting process, he says, and it is not making progress in areas that matter like stream restoration and transportation.
"The watershed is terribly disturbed," Hoffman said. "They should be getting into watershed restoration projects rather than people building homes and garages."
"You're limited to X number of feet," he continued. "As if those limitations have any measurable impact on Tahoe. I think time will prove I'm right -- that the land coverage program is a thorn in the side and won't have any significant effect on the growth of algae at Tahoe."
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How building rules are enforced is also what many critics point to as a failure of the agency. The TRPA has five inspectors of building sites throughout the basin. Steve Chilton, head of the agency's Compliance Division, says his staff could be double what it is today.
"Largely, what our folks in the field do is educate," Chilton said. "We go after large cases because they are there. We deal with them on the basis of what's equitable to their neighbors."
Other than being alerted to violations by a phone call from a neighbor or by an inspector at a site, enforcement occurs through the permitting process, Chilton said. When people apply for a permit to remodel, the inspection required can lead to the discovery of existing violations.
A violation can be punished with a fine -- up to $5,000 a day -- for as many days as a violation persists. Fine amounts are recommended by TRPA staff, but determined by the 14 voting members of its Governing Board. If the violator rejects a fine or settlement agreement, he or she must challenge the TRPA ruling in federal court, a daunting and expensive process.
Many people point to a ban on two-stroke engines, phased in from June 1999 to October 2001, as the biggest success of the Compliance Division. Two-strokes on personal watercraft, motor boats and sailboats dump unburned fuel into the lake.
The personal watercraft industry, represented by Hoffman, challenged the ban and lost. The ban, groundbreaking in the world of environmental regulation, got the attention of media throughout the country. The TRPA issued a handful of hefty fines to people who received multiple warnings but ignored them.
In the summer 1999, the agency issued 525 written warnings to boaters with two-stroke engines. Staff at the agency went to boat shows and used its patrol boats to distribute information about the ban.
"That's been a real success," Chilton said. "The number of citations issued has steadily gone down. Monitoring out in the water has shown the lake is a lot cleaner than it was three years ago in terms of petroleum."
Why did the ban succeed? Public awareness, Chilton said.
This year, TRPA formed a Public Outreach and Environmental Education Committee. It convened for the first time on June 25 ,and has met monthly. Its first decision was to invest $30,000 to upgrade the agency's Web site.