Just after 7 a.m. on a recent Sunday, bumper-to-bumper traffic lined North Lake Boulevard in Kings Beach, a regular weekend sight in the community of about 4,000 people on Lake Tahoe’s north shore. While snow attracted the visitors on this weekend, just as many people show up in the summer to enjoy beaches and trails.
Approval of two major projects in recent months has heightened concerns about growth on the north shore, and it’s against this backdrop that Placer County supervisors will consider this week how development should occur in their corner of the Tahoe Basin.
Taking a page from “smart-growth” development plans in urban areas, officials in Placer County hope to direct growth away from undeveloped areas and encourage redevelopment in Kings Beach and Tahoe City. The Tahoe Basin Area Plan offers incentives for building in towns, including relaxed restrictions on building height and density.
The county is acting in response to an updated development plan by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which has final say on construction in the lake’s watershed. In the 2012 regional plan, TRPA called for local governments on the Nevada and California sides of the lake to update their own development plans to reflect the agency’s regional goals, especially its emphasis on redevelopment in towns.
South Lake Tahoe and Douglas County, Nev., have approved area plans, while other local governments on both sides of the lake have plans pending, including one for Meyers that will go before the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors. Placer County supervisors are scheduled to vote Tuesday, setting the course for development on 72 square miles along the northwest corner of Lake Tahoe.
The Placer development plan would raise the height limit for buildings from three to four floors. It would also increase the number of housing units per acre allowed, with the numbers depending on the type of development.
As part of the area plan, supervisors will consider approving the proposed Tahoe City Lodge development. Planner Crystal Jacobsen called it a “demonstration project” to illustrate how the area plan will work. The Tahoe City Lodge, a redevelopment project, could build 40 units per acre, instead of the 15 units allowed now for rooms without kitchen facilities.
The proposal has drawn opposition from environmentalists, including the Sierra Club, which unsuccessfully sued TRPA in federal court over its regional plan update. The Sierra Club contends that the plan will diminish the lake’s clarity, in violation of the agency’s mandate.
“There’s just been a huge amount of development,” said Laurel Ames of the Tahoe Area Sierra Club. “The question is how much more we can handle.”
Last month, the Placer County Board of Supervisors approved an expansion of the Squaw Valley ski resort with hotels, condos and housing of up to 1,500 rooms, up to 300,000 square feet of commercial space and a “mountain adventure center” of 90,000 square feet. The month before, the board approved a project in nearby Martis Valley that includes construction of 760 homes. Both projects faced widespread opposition from area residents. Both are north of the basin plan area but will contribute traffic to it.
A key environmental organization, the League to Save Lake Tahoe, initially opposed the Placer County area plan, saying it did not do enough to reduce vehicle pollution, the top cause of diminished water clarity in the lake.
The league now supports the plan, in large part because the county backed off from some aggressive proposals that went beyond the scope of the TRPA regional plan, including a broader definition of area that could be developed, said the group’s executive director, Darcie Collins.
Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery, who represents the Lake Tahoe area, said she supports the area plan in part because of support from the league and other organizations. She said she also considers the plan a smarter approach to development than the “ski-village” model that has dominated the region in the past.
TRPA says the regional plan will help the environment, and Placer County officials make the same argument about their area plan. They say the plan encourages environmentally responsible development by building in existing towns, and requiring developers to build in ways that minimize pollution.
A key part of the plan is its transportation section, which says the basin can avoid a traffic increase through expanded bus service and improved pedestrian and bike facilities, among other things, said Jacobsen.
Montgomery said she is confident the county will follow through on those transportation improvements. She acknowledges that residents in the region and state agencies do not want additional highway projects in the environmentally sensitive region.
The captain for the Truckee office of the California Highway Patrol echoed that sentiment in a letter to county officials, adding that additional traffic will “challenge emergency response times.”