Lake Tahoe redevelopment plans in dispute

February 24, 2010 7:00:57 PM PST
Lake Tahoe may be one of the most beautiful spots in the world, but the buildings that surround it are not. Many are old, ugly and harming the environment. A lot of people in the Tahoe Basin want change, but as you might expect, not everyone agrees on what that change should look like.

At first, Lake Tahoe was a natural paradise known for clear water and soaring mountains. The ski resorts and casinos came later, bringing 50 years of glitz and glamour and a hodge-podge of development.

"Over 204 motels and a collection of over 4,500 rooms, we counted them," the announcer in a past ad boasted.

Most of the building was done with little thought about the environment. Now, the government has strict standards for the Tahoe Basin, but they are hard to reach with a legacy of bad development.

"Almost all of our water quality and air quality standards are not in compliance," says Carl Young with the League to Save Lake Tahoe.

At the same time, the weak economy and competition from Indian casinos have hit hard. Gaming revenue is at its lowest in over two decades. Aging casinos are for sale or closing their doors. A convention center started three years ago is in bankruptcy.

Both environmentalists and businesses agree that something needs to be done.

"We're really at a point of reinventing ourselves," says Julie Regan with the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, designated by Congress to protect Lake Tahoe.

"Everything we do at Lake Tahoe is about getting environmental gain at the same time as we get community benefits," she says.

The agency is looking to private business to redevelop Tahoe with new greener buildings and activities besides gambling that will bring the economy back to life.

Roger Wittenberg says, "The worst thing we can do is to do nothing."

He is betting on the Biltmore Casino and Hotel on Tahoe's North Shore to turn things around.

"It will be replaced with a new and smaller casino and the emphasis will go from a gaming property to more of an emphasis on health and wellness," he says.

Wittenberg made millions of dollars creating environmentally-friendly building materials. Now, he is planning the new resort and spa, called Boulder Bay, with state of the art green technology which he says reduces their carbon footprint "by almost half."

Wittenberg's office looks a little like a school science fair. It is full of displays about green products he plans to use like insulation made from recycled paper, toilets that flush with water from melting snow, and electric bikes to get guests out of their cars.

He is also working on the biggest issue affecting Lake Tahoe's clarity, dirt and dust ground up by cars on pavement. That sediment drains into the lake and clouds the water. He says he can cut the sediment going into the lake by 90 percent with a list of high tech improvements including porous concrete.

"As you can see it allows the water to pass through it," he says.

That means the fine particles of dirt from the street run through the concrete too.

"What we're trying to do, is get it to soak into the ground and the ground will be like a giant filter," he explains.

Many local residents are thrilled with the resort proposal.

"I think a great combination of science-based, market driven and definitely community supported project," says community organizer Theresa May Duggan.

However, there are plenty of skeptics.

Ann Nichols with the North Tahoe Preservation Alliance says, "We're very concerned about its size and scale. We just think it's too big."

The resort would have about 300 hotel rooms and 50 condos, compared to just 112 rooms now. Under Tahoe's strict development rules, Wittenberg can only add new hotel rooms if he gets rid of others, so he is buying up outdated motels that will be torn down.

Critics say that is just moving traffic and congestion from one area to another.

"They are taking down hundreds of rooms on the South Shore and they are moving those entitlements up to the North Shore," Nichols says.

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency is still doing its environmental review of the project and the community is watching closely.

"So far, what we've heard of what they plan to do for water quality sounds intriguing, but there are lots of other environmental standards that are well behind where they need to be right now," Young says.

There is a lot at stake. If the resort is approved, it is expected to be a model for future projects around the lake.

"Our guiding light is helping the lake improve and seeing a return to our historic clarity levels. That's what's driving the decision," says Regan.

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency plans to vote on the Biltmore project later this year.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney