Tahoe regulators need to keep eye on big picture

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency has again withstood a challenge to its authority to regulate what must be considered a highly subjective standard - the scenic beauty of Lake Tahoe.

It did so, in the dismissal of a federal lawsuit over the TRPA's so-called scenic ordinances, by applying an objective set of criteria to questions such as paint color, reflectivity of windows and landscaping.

The regulations have some flexibility and are open to revision since being adopted in November 2002, but Judge Edward Reed's ruling this week confirms a key element - the TRPA does properly have jurisdiction to protect the scenery.

That would seem obvious, since for more than 20 years one of the nine goals of the TRPA has been to make sure the natural landscape dominates the views of the shoreline. The conflict, however, has been with TRPA's charge to also take into consideration the effects its regulations have on the economic well-being of the people who inhabit those shorelines.

The scenic guidelines weren't imposed without consideration and compromise. To many, they seem no more onerous than the rules adopted by homeowners' associations. Of course, that doesn't mean they won't always be a source of irritation for some people.

In truth, the real controversy over scenic guidelines goes back to general dissatisfaction within the Lake Tahoe Basin among some homeowners and businesspeople over the agency's ability to be fair, consistent and reasonable. It also has much to do with the public's perception of the agency's fundamental role - as environmental cop, or as a leader and arbiter of decisions affecting the future of the jewel of the Sierra Nevada.

We, like others, tend to think the TRPA has been too preoccupied with the former, to the detriment of the latter. But we're far from ready to dump the agency and start over. That would be a disaster.

In fact, the TRPA is headed in a better direction - more open, more responsive, more responsible.

Protection of Lake Tahoe's scenery and environment are of broad economic benefit to residents of the basin and the entire region.

It's unrealistic to think that enforcement of its regulations will never be a burden on an individual homeowner or business. The agency's staff must do what they can to make sure those burdens aren't unreasonable.

But their first priority must be to keep their eye on the big picture. Literally.


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