Lake Tahoe is considered an environmental treasure, but the area around it has been hard hit by economic problems. For decades the economy at Tahoe was driven by casinos, but competition from Indian gaming changed everything.
The TRPA's Julie Regan says the Tahoe economy was in a free fall even before the great recession hit. Businesses shutdown. A big construction project in the middle of the city of South Lake Tahoe went bankrupt and sat unfinished for six years. Plans to redevelop aging hotels and casinos struggled to get financing. Schools closed. The Tahoe area lost population.
Now, there is cautious optimism in the business community that the worst may be over. The abandoned construction project in South Lake Tahoe is underway again and two large developments may be going up soon. One will turn the Homewood ski area on the west side of Tahoe into a high end village and resort.
The other development is at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course at the south end of the lake. Edgewood is about to break ground on a new hotel and 40 homes. The deal requires Edgewood to open some of its spectacular beach to the public.
"Our feeling is that things are definitely on the way back," said Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course Marketing Director Bryan Davis.
Many Tahoe business owners are excited about the flurry of activity. But the Sierra Club and a coalition of other environmental groups are worried. They are suing to stop a new regional plan that streamlines regulations for future development.
"This regional plan was aimed totally at economic conditions and ignored the environmental conditions," said Laurel Ames with the Sierra Club.
Ames said the new plan allows too much dense development that will hurt the environment. The Sierra Club suit charges the TRPA has not addressed water or air quality properly. They also believe it will gentrify the Tahoe area with too many big expensive new properties and too little affordable housing.
But TRPA officials disagree. Regan said new building projects will only be approved if they include major environmental benefits that will actually improve Lake Tahoe.
"We have one of the most unique growth management systems in the United States. We capped development. We capped the number of homes. We capped the number of hotel units," said Regan.
So if you want to build something at Tahoe, you have to demolish something else and restore the environment.
The TRPA points to the Edgewood development as an example. Old motels were torn down in order to allow Edgewood to build new units at the new location. The developer is also required to make other environmental improvements on the property.
"We were doing our part to make these improvements, and, at the end of the day, it's going to protect the lake and we're going to have an opportunity to run a successful business and then everybody wins," said Davis.
Planning officials believe their new rules keep a good balance between business and the environment. But the Sierra Club says the scale is tipping too far in favor of economics and away from the environment.
"I would like to see people committed to protecting the lake, able to set aside their driving economic forces and live with what we have," said Ames.
The case is scheduled for trial March 26.
Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.