The executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency told the lunch crowd at the APA California conference today that her agency provides a model for regional planning. She was right – but not in the way she intended.

Speaking at the annual planning conference in Squaw Valley, Joanne Marchetta explained how TRPA has been planning for the two-state region surrounding Lake Tahoe for 40 years, and how the agency's policies are paying off in a cleaner environment and clearer lake. Those environmental benefis translate to economic benefits in a region that relies almost exclusively on tourism for jobs.

At the same time, she described how it took the agency 22 years to adopt a policy for waterfront development along a small slice of the lake, and how that policy is now tangled in litigation filed by property owners.

Sorry, but 22 years to develop a policy for implementing a regional plan adopted in 1987 is hardly a model for other jurisdictions, especially if the immediate upshot is a lawsuit.

Marchetta also stated matter-of-factly, "There will be no new large subdivisions, and we are on the verge of buildout."

Sorry again, but I can think of no other region in California, including the most densely populated ones, where the term "buildout" would be applicable. In California's land-constrained urban regions, there is no such thing as "buildout," only building up. The TRPA may get to spend most of its effort and money on environmental restoration, but other regions need to figure out how to accommodate millions of more people and jobs while shrinking their carbon footprint.

Still, Marchetta had one observation that seemed to resonate with planners: Environmental organizations are fighting the wrong battle. She said that redevelopment and revitalization of existing town centers in the Tahoe region is crucial for environmental restoration purposes, especially enhancing the lake's water clarity. The urban footprint needs to shrink and can do so with strategic redevelopment. However, the knee-jerk reaction from environmental groups is opposition to any development within the Tahoe basin.

That same phenomenon is commonplace elsewhere: Environmental advocates oppose "good" infill development, which leads to "bad" greenfield development in places where environmental advocacy is minimal. This is why the Central Valley got most of the housing units that should have been built in the Bay Area for the last 20 years.

If TRPA figures out a way to combat the environmental organizations' conventional wisdom that all development must be halted, the agency will truly have a lesson for the rest of the state to emulate.

- Paul Shigley