By Steve Mokrohisky, Douglas County Manager
The future of Lake Tahoe’s natural and built environment, as well as how best to protect its pristine waters has been debated at length. The conclusion of thousands of residents, visitors, businesses, environmentalists, scientists and local governments who participated in the Tahoe Regional Plan Update is that the status quo is unacceptable and the need to improve the environment, economy and community through redevelopment is imperative.
On August 28, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Governing Board will consider approval of Douglas County’s local area plan for the south shore of Lake Tahoe. The new area plan was created through years of extensive public engagement and encourages environmental redevelopment of existing buildings.
Leading the way as the first entity to propose a new local area plan, Douglas County has appropriately been held to the highest standard of environmental review and has welcomed the opportunity to answer questions and engage in thoughtful dialogue about how to ensure the best local plan for the future of Lake Tahoe.
Despite broad public support and clear data detailing the environmental benefits of the new plan, a representative from the Sierra Club stated recently that “local governments can’t be trusted to hold the line on development.” Unfortunately, inflammatory statements like this ignore the facts and offer no solutions to improve the environment. In the interest of thoughtful public debate, let us consider the facts.
Douglas County, its businesses and residents have a strong record of environmental stewardship. Nearly $1.7 billion has been invested in environmental improvements at Lake Tahoe since 1997, including over 31 water quality projects in Douglas County. Eighteen percent of Lake Tahoe’s shoreline resides in Douglas County, but only three percent of the fine sediment material that degrades the clarity of the Lake originates in Douglas County – the least amount of runoff of any jurisdiction in the
Tahoe Basin. Douglas County businesses and residents have some of the highest Best Management Practice compliance rates in the Tahoe Basin.
Beyond Lake Tahoe, Douglas County has protected over 15,000 acres in the Carson Valley and seeks to protect an additional 15,000 acres as part of its federal lands bill. There is no bi-state regulatory agency requiring us to protect the environment, but rather our local residents and local government choose environmental stewardship as the right thing to do for future generations.
Most future projects at Lake Tahoe will be redevelopment of existing infrastructure, not new development. There is very little available private land to build on at Lake Tahoe, as only 16 percent of the land is in private ownership, only eight residential building allocations are allowed this year and only 36,250 square feet is available for new commercial projects in Douglas County. Lodging industry experts often remind us that we don’t need more hotel rooms in the south shore, as we already have thousands of tourist units with an average rate of less than $100 and an annual occupancy of 28 percent. Many of these units should be relocated, redeployed or retired, thereby reducing the quantity and improving the quality.
Too much of the built environment is blighted and has outlived its useful life, resulting in harm to the health of the natural environment. Private investment in redevelopment will allow property owners to increase energy efficiency and reduce storm water runoff.
The Edgewood Lodge project is a great example of private investment that will improve the environment by preventing 500,000 pounds of sediment per year from entering Lake Tahoe, restore numerous acres of wetlands and improve recreational opportunities, while increasing economic vitality in the area. The environmentally beneficial redevelopment projects under the old Regional Plan have been exhausted. We need the new Regional Plan and local area plans that encourage environmental gain through redevelopment.
There is no question that thousands of people are unified in the strong desire to improve the environment through redevelopment at Lake Tahoe. There is also no question that open and thoughtful public debate supported by facts is at the cornerstone of our democracy. So, the next time you hear someone claim that the new Regional Plan and local area plans will result in harm to the environment, ask them for facts to support their claim, as well as solutions to improve the environment, economy and community. Those of us who live, work and play in Douglas County are committed to keeping Lake Tahoe blue by turning our community green.
A note about the author: Steve Mokrohisky is County Manager of Douglas County, Nevada and served as Nevada’s local government representative on the bi-state consultation group that facilitated solutions to the final draft of the new Regional Plan Update.