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Earthjustice Media Release

October 30, 2013

Environmental Groups File Opening Brief Challenging Update to Tahoe Regional Plan

Update strips protections, increasing potential for water and air pollution October 30, 2013 Sacramento, CA — Update strips protections, increasing potential for water and air pollution Sacramento, CA Contact:  Trent Orr, Earthjustice, (415) 217-2082 Laurel Ames, Tahoe Area Sierra Club, (530) 541-5752 October 30, 2013

Environmental groups filed their opening brief in the lawsuit challenging the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s (TRPA) approval of the Tahoe Regional Plan Update (RPU) for failing to address negative impacts on soil conservation, water quality, and air quality in the environmental report on the RPU and in TRPA’s legally required findings regarding its approval.

The bi-state Compact to protect Lake Tahoe’s environment requires various environmental protection thresholds to be met.  TRPA must ensure that these thresholds will be met so that any development around Lake Tahoe would not harm the environment.  Because the environmental impact statement on the RPU failed to study significant water quality, air quality, and soil conservation impacts to the Lake, TRPA has no basis for its findings that the threshold standards for protection of these resources would be met in the future.  Because of this failure to take environmental threats to the Lake and its environment seriously, the Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore, represented by Earthjustice, have requested that the Court invalidate the approval of the RPU.

“Lake Tahoe’s famed clarity is severely threatened by soil erosion and pollutant-laden runoff from excessive development around the Lake, as well as by particulate matter from air pollution,” said Wendy Park, an Earthjustice lawyer representing the plaintiffs.  “It is utterly unacceptable that TRPA should chart future planning for the Lake without rigorously studying the threats to air, water, and soil that their plan entails.”

The RPU, approved in December 2012, actively promotes increased intensified development in identified “urban centers” around the Lake.  Compared to the old Regional Plan, which had been in effect since 1987, the RPU will allow an additional 3,200 residential units and 200,000 square feet of new commercial floor area in the Tahoe Basin, where current levels of urbanization have already seriously degraded water and air quality.  TRPA claims that the increased urbanization will actually improve the Lake’s environment, by providing incentives for aging, poorly located development to be removed and relocated to urban centers.  But these incentives allow far more new development in the Tahoe Basin than would be removed.  That development will increase hard surfaces near the Lake, sending more polluted runoff into its waters.

“TRPA has sadly abandoned its core mission of restoring and protecting Lake Tahoe’s environment,” said Laurel Ames of the Sierra Club.  “Its notion that the environmental impacts of over-urbanization on Lake Tahoe can be solved by intensifying that urbanization starkly illustrates just how far it has strayed from that mission.”

“In the face of declining water clarity and quality at Lake Tahoe, it is astounding that TRPA has given the go-ahead to a significant increase in concentrated urban development near the Lake, which will send more sediments and pollutants into the waters it is charged with cleaning up,” said Susan Gearhart of Friends of the West Shore.

Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore filed their federal lawsuit in February 2013 challenging the new Regional Plan Update. Lake Tahoe is one of the largest and deepest mountain lakes in the United States, and TRPA’s fundamental purpose is to restore the lake’s former fabled water clarity and the health of the Tahoe Basin’s environment.

The plan encourages replacing low-rise buildings that surround the lake with taller, bulkier structures. Near the casino corridor of South Lake Tahoe, height restrictions have been increased under the new rules from three to six stories; in smaller villages such as Tahoe City, from two to four stories; and in Nevada, casinos can reach up to 197 feet, or 19 stories.

The revised plan also allows local governments to approve development regulations that do not meet minimum regional environmental standards, including standards for how much land can be paved, or “covered.” This violates the compact’s requirement that TRPA establish “a minimum standard applicable throughout the region.”


In 1968, California and Nevada entered into a bi-state agreement designed to protect natural resources and control development in the Lake Tahoe Basin, in the face of rapidly declining water clarity.  The agreement, the Tahoe Regional Planning Compact, created TRPA to serve as the land use and environmental protection agency for the Lake Tahoe region and became effective through congressional authorization and the President’s signature in December 1969. When the 1969 Compact failed to stem growth as intended, largely because development approvals were left in the hands of local governments that did not take regional impacts into account, the states adopted amendments to the compact approved by Congress in December 1980. One of the most significant changes in the compact was a requirement that one regional body, TRPA, review and approve all projects within the region, so that the welfare of the entire Tahoe Basin would be taken into account in decisions regarding new development proposals.

The Compact also required TRPA to adopt “environmental threshold carrying capacities,” or “thresholds”—“environmental standard[s] necessary to maintain a significant scenic, recreational, educational, scientific or natural value of the region or to maintain public health and safety within the region.”  Within one year, TRPA was required to adopt a regional plan that would achieve and maintain these thresholds. After a lawsuit by the State of California to enforce the Compact’s regional plan and threshold provisions, a new regional plan was approved in 1987 that , until the approval of the RPU, provided the framework for ensuring that all development is consistent with achieving and maintaining these thresholds. While the 1987 Plan did not succeed in attaining many of these thresholds (including lake clarity, which has steadily declined over the years), it has more or less limited urbanization of the Tahoe region.

But developers and other business interests in Nevada have long complained that the Compact and the 1987 Plan’s controls and standards are too restrictive. In 2011, pressure from these interests led to passage of a Nevada law that required Nevada to withdraw from the Compact in 2015 if California did not agree to certain changes in the Compact and TRPA did not adopt a new regional plan. In reaction to this threat, TRPA hastened to complete the “Regional Plan Update” it had started, which proposed significantly weakening the 1987 Plan.

On December 12, 2012, TRPA adopted a Regional Plan Update, which incorporated many of the weakened environmental standards that Nevada demanded. Most significantly, these include the delegation to local governments of TRPA’s project review and approval duties for all projects under 100,000 square feet in size. This delegation runs counter to the Compact’s intent to provide regional oversight of all projects and violates the Compact’s clear directive that it is the TRPA governing board’s duty to review and approve projects and to ensure that any project it approves complies with TRPA’s environmental standards to protect the lake and its environment.

In addition, the Plan Update weakens the standards by which new projects are reviewed and approved. It allows local governments to establish development standards that do not meet minimum regional requirements, including standards for how much land can be paved. This unlawfully leaves it to local governments to provide the “minimum standards” for environmental protection that TRPA should be providing and fails to ensure that such local standards are at least as protective as TRPA’s.

The Plan Update also opens more than 300 acres of undeveloped land to “resort recreation” development, expanding Tahoe’s urban boundary; allows up to 3,200 new residential units and 200,000 square feet of new commercial floor area; and allows increased concentration of pavement closer to the lake in urban core areas—up to 70 percent land coverage in designated “community centers.” The Plan Update’s strategy to restore Lake Tahoe is to loosen development restrictions and encourage redevelopment in urban core areas while removing existing development from sensitive outlying areas, on the theory that this would enable more environmentally sensible projects. But this strategy fails to account for the drastic increase in new, concentrated development that the Plan Update allows and the harmful impacts of that increase and does not ensure that compensatory removal of existing development on sensitive lands will, in fact, occur.

The environmental analysis on the Plan Update fails to adequately study the water quality, air quality, and impervious pavement impacts of that increase and to ensure enough removal of existing development to offset the impacts of new development. As a result, TRPA’s required findings that the Regional Plan update achieves and maintains TRPA’s own environmental protection standards are not credible.

Trent Orr, Earthjustice, (415) 217-2082
Laurel Ames, Tahoe Area Sierra Club, (530) 541-5752


Tahoe Daily Tribune


Jim Clark: Nevada dominating California in ‘TRPA Bowl’


Wolf Pack 31, Hawaii 9; Fresno State 41, Boise State 40; Nevada 14, California 0 … wait a minute; we just heard the UNR score. Did they play two games in one day? Nope. That was the score in the TRPA Bowl, which was more than three years in the making. Hardly anyone knew how the game was going to come out until just recently.


How did a little state like Nevada dominate a big state like California?

Read the article at:


Earthjustice Blog

September 9, 2013

Looming Tahoe Deal Is a Bad Deal for the Lake

California on verge of giving in to Nevada pro-development forces

By Kari Birdseye



Any day now, the fate of Lake Tahoe’s famed blue waters could be drastically compromised.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and California Gov. Jerry Brown could seal a bi-state deal that will encourage the agency created to protect the lake from pollution and over-development to place economic development front and center. The California Senate recently passed SB 630 to approve the deal that caves in to Nevada’s threats to dissolve a more-than-four-decades-long “marriage” to protect Lake Tahoe.

But what is California getting out of this deal?

One thing it would gain is neutralizing Nevada’s looming threat of divorce. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, formed in 1969 through a compact between California and Nevada that was approved by Congress, made history as one of the first watershed-based environmental protection and restoration agencies in the United States. Nevada casino and resort developers have long protested that TRPA’s regulations protecting Tahoe’s scenic ridgelines, clean alpine air and crystal clear waters make it too difficult to build more high-rise hotels that require new parking lots and attract more cars to the basin.

In 2011, Nevada passed SB 271, which requires Nevada’s pull-out from the compact if California does not agree to pro-development amendments. The new deal would result in SB 271’s repeal, but only if California accedes to equally troubling terms. Nevada’s demands are that TRPA must consider “changing economic conditions” and the “effects of regulation on commerce” in land-use planning. But while morphing TRPA into an economic development agency may temporarily benefit a few developers, Nevada politicians and local tax coffers, it would be fundamentally at odds with TRPA’s mission to protect Tahoe’s irreplaceable values, beloved and enjoyed by Californians and visitors from all over the world.

Not to mention, a healthy Lake Tahoe basin is necessary for a healthy outdoor recreation and tourism economy. Prioritizing economic development instead of environmental health will only end up hurting both the environment and the local economy, and the resources that support them. Too much pavement and too many cars are already to blame for runoff, causing loss of lake clarity.

Nevada has also required California to support “full implementation” of TRPA’s new regional plan passed last December, but the plan’s legality is in question.

This new plan shifts authority over future development decisions to local jurisdictions, which do not have a mandate to protect the lake. Decisions made by one local government will affect others in the area and, if not coordinated, will result in poorly planned development that degrades the entire Lake Tahoe basin. The new plan also allows those towns and counties to adopt weaker pollution and development controls than otherwise required by TRPA. This would undermine the very idea behind the agency's creation—that protecting Tahoe’s water quality, clean air and natural beauty is the top priority, and one that must be handled at the regional level.

TRPA is unique in its mission to create and implement region-wide solutions for environmental protection. Though it still has a long way to go in meeting soil, air and water protection standards—including lake clarity—it has done a decent job in curbing the rampant growth that preceded its regional oversight.

However, the impending bi-state deal is threatening all that—which again raises the question, what has California to gain? Or, what has it to lose by not capitulating to Nevada? Two-thirds of Lake Tahoe’s shoreline lies in California. The bulk of state funding for the lake’s protection—$4 million per year—comes from California, outpacing Nevada’s contribution four to one. So, why is Nevada dictating the terms?

Keeping the compact intact is important but would be an empty gesture if TRPA’s mission has strayed from protecting the gem of the Sierra to promoting economic development. And while Tahoe’s economy suffered after the 2008 financial crisis, as did the rest of the country’s, the economy is already rebounding and tourism is thriving around the Lake.

Earthjustice is a member of a new group, whose name says it all: Coalition to Save Lake Tahoe . Local, regional, and national groups dedicated to ensuring that Tahoe remains a beautiful place to live and to bring our families to visit have come together to alert Californians and Nevadans about changes happening to the Bi-State compact and to keep strong environmental protection standards for Lake Tahoe intact. Two of the coalition members, the Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore, represented by Earthjustice, recently filed a federal lawsuit, challenging new land-use rules for Lake Tahoe that seriously reduce protections for the treasured mountain lake.

There are many of us who often daydream about abandoning our day job and taking off for a quick trip to Lake Tahoe. All of us, especially those who have grown up loving Lake Tahoe as that special place to visit, now need to stand up for the lake lest we lose what makes it so special. The California Assembly and Gov. Brown urgently need to hear that environmental protections come first.




August 12, 2013

“Coalition to Protect Lake Tahoe” Launches Opposition to New Regional Development Plan Efforts Threatening the Lake’s Future

Sierra Club, local partners team up to save the lake from rampant development, oppose new plan and related state legislation

SACRAMENTO– The Coalition to Protect Lake Tahoe launched today in opposition to the new “Regional Plan Update” adopted by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA).  The new group also opposes California Senate Bill 630, which, if passed, would formalize TRPA’s new approach that will ultimately lead to further degradation of Lake Tahoe’s water quality and clarity and destruction of environmental quality in the Lake Tahoe region.

The coalition of environmental organization includes  Sierra Club, Friends of the West Shore, Friends of Tahoe Vista, North Tahoe Citizen Action Alliance, North Tahoe Preservation Alliance, Washoe Meadows Community and Earthjustice. Learn more about the Coalition to Protect Lake Tahoe at

“The members of the Coalition to Protect Lake Tahoe have for decades worked to preserve and protect water clarity, scenic beauty, and recreational experiences of the national treasure that is Lake Tahoe,” said Laurel Ames, conservation co-chair of the Tahoe Area Sierra Club. “Imagine Lake Tahoe clouded by pollution, its scenic views obstructed by new tall buildings, with even more traffic caused by intensified development around the lake.  This will happen under the new regional development plan. That is not the Lake Tahoe we want to leave for future generations.”

In December of 2012, TRPA approved the innocently-named “Regional Plan Update,” which upended an agreement among California, Nevada, and Congress forged more than three decades ago that instituted carefully restrained growth rates and strong environmental protections.

The California Assembly is currently considering Senate Bill 630, which would require TRPA to balance the economic value of proposed new intensive development against strong protections for the lake’s environment.  Passage of this bill would formalize the new planning approach taken under the Regional Plan Update, which alters TRPA’s mission from that of the guardian of Lake Tahoe’s extraordinary environment to that of an economic development agency.  Members of the Coalition to Protect Lake Tahoe have challenged the Regional Plan Update in federal court.
SB 630 was introduced in response to Nevada’s threat to dissolve the bi-state agreement to protect and restore Lake Tahoe. The Coalition to Protect Lake Tahoe is opposed to SB 630.

“The new regional development plan adopted by TRPA will bring radical change to Tahoe’s look and feel, with new tall buildings, intense urban development, and increased traffic and congestion around the lake,” said Jennifer Quashnick, with Friends of the West Shore. “TRPA has abandoned its primary mission, which is protecting Lake Tahoe.”
The new TRPA plan will seriously reduce protections for Lake Tahoe by directly undermining the original goals of the agreement that was designed to save Lake Tahoe’s famous clarity and scenic beauty:

  • It fails to make a credible case that the environmental protections required by the agreement can be achieved by dramatically increasing development.
  • While TRPA ceded much of its authority and retained only a limited oversight status, it also created “an admittedly difficult” appeal process (according to TRPA’s own General Counsel) that will greatly impede the ability of citizens to object to poor planning decisions that could be made by local governments.
  • The plan allows more pavement and taller buildings, which will result in more traffic, smog, and runoff, thus removing the firewall of environmental protection that the plan was intended to provide. 
In February 2013, Sierra Club and Friends of the West Shore filed a federal lawsuit challenging the new regional development plan, maintaining that it fails to carry out the environmental protection requirements of the existing California-Nevada agreement.  As the California Assembly now considers SB 630, the Coalition to Protect Lake Tahoe will actively oppose the bill when it is heard in committee this month.

 “The Coalition to Protect Lake Tahoe cannot stand by idly and allow Tahoe, once the bluest lake in America, to become increasingly clouded by pollution, and its scenic values obstructed by more and more four- to six-story buildings in dense new urban centers and resort recreation areas,” said Ames.
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