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Ninth Circuit Upholds Tahoe Development Plan

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on November 04, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

"The Lake Tahoe Region is an area of unmatched beauty surrounding the largest alpine lake in North America," Judge Mary M. Schroeder writes at the beginning of a recent Ninth Circuit opinion. And she couldn't be more on point. With its deep-blue waters, towering trees, and majestic mountain peaks, Lake Tahoe is one of the great natural wonders of the American West. Even the Donners must have marveled at their sublime surroundings as they succumbed to cannibalism among Tahoe's alpine slopes.

But that beauty has brought the Tahoe area incredible popularity, popularity which risks burying the area's natural charms under vacation rentals and ski resorts. To help manage that growth, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency released, in 2012, the first comprehensive update to environmental regulations since the 1980's. And though that regional development plan may not have gone as far as environmentalists would have wanted, its environmental impact statement did not violate the requirements of the law, the Ninth Circuit ruled on Wednesday.

Keep Tahoe Blue-ish?

Four years ago, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency released a bi-state land use and resource management plan for the Lake Tahoe Region, which spans both California and Nevada. The Regional Plan Update, or RPU, was the product of the Regional Planning Compact between the California and Nevada, and required an Environmental Impact Statement analyzing the environmental effects of the RPU and alternative plans.

The RPU, according to the Ninth Circuit, "generally restricts future development to areas that are already developed" and sets limits to the future development of those areas." But according to environmentalists, the RPU and EIS failed to sufficiently take into account the full effects of concentrated development, such as soil erosion and increased runoff that could threaten Lake Tahoe's water quality. The Sierra Club and the Friends of the West Shore, a local conservation group, sued, alleging that the plan was arbitrary and capricious in failing to address such concerns.

Not Arbitrary, Not Capricious

The Ninth disagreed, however. "We conclude that the EIS's analysis of the effects of concentrating development was not arbitrary or capricious," Judge Schroeder wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel, "and sufficiently addressed significant environmental impacts of the RPU."

The planning agency did not violate the law by finding that local analyses were "too speculative" at this stage, the court found, nor did it violate the interstate compact by looking only at region-wide impacts.

"The final EIS adequately addressed concerns raised about the draft EIS," the court concluded, including concerns over water quality, soil conservation, and best management practices.

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