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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Lake Tahoe Mansions

Air Date: Week of October 25, 2002

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On the shores of Lake Tahoe, mansions are multiplying and mountain chalets are disappearing. Some local planners say the huge homes are out of place aesthetically, but wealthy homeowners take a dim view of any property limitations. Willie Albright reports.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It used to be that a three or four bedroom house, 1,800 square feet or so, was a large home. Not anymore. Houses three times that size are the norm in many luxury enclaves these days. Scenic Lake Tahoe on the California/Nevada border is part of that trend, but a battle is brewing there over a proposed rule to limit these mansions. Willie Albright of member station KUNR reports.

ALBRIGHT: Lake Tahoe has always been home to extravagant mansions, but now regulators are concerned that what some critics call "monster homes" are increasingly wall-to-wall along the lakeshore. So the bi-state Tahoe Regional Planning Agency has drafted an ordinance that would regulate the visual impact of lake homes.

John Hitchcock is with the planning agency. Over the past year, homeowners have spied him 300 feet offshore in this boat, taking photos to analyze the visual effect of buildings in the shore zone.

[BOAT MOTOR IDLING]

HITCHCOCK: I can only speak on behalf of the agency and what the intent of our standards are and that's it. And the last three, the evaluation has indicated the scenic quality has been degrading, and it's been mostly contributed to highly contrasting structures in the landscape, and part of that is because the homes are getting bigger.

ALBRIGHT: But Hitchcock insists the purpose of the ordinance is not to limit the size of the homes, rather it's an attempt to get the buildings to blend into the Tahoe landscape. When a home is built or significantly remodeled within 300 feet of the shoreline, planners would give it a numerical value based on how much, in their view, it contrasts with the natural environment. A poor score could be improved if property owners cut back on their windows, significantly shrink the frontage of homes facing the lake, screen houses with trees or bushes, or paint in muted tones. Many property owners are outraged. They see the work of environmentalists behind the proposal.

One environmental group, the League to Save Lake Tahoe, has sued Tahoe planners in the past and would like to see the strict regulation of the size, color and landscaping of new buildings.

GALLOWAY: It is not the charter of the TRPA to decide whether someone has too big a house or in any other way to decide that they should be limiting what someone can do with their money.

ALBRIGHT: Washoe County commissioner and agency board member Jim Galloway says it is nothing short of class warfare.

GALLOWAY: This ordinance goes too far and it does it without justification. There was never a public perception study done by a cross-section of people who have ordinary values to say whether there is anything to this assumption that big is bad, that bigger is worse.

[SOUND OF CARS]

ALBRIGHT: Homeowners in Incline Village, where many of these mansions are located, have formed an opposition group called the Committee for the Reasonable Regulation of Lake Tahoe. Committee member Chuck Otto says for him, size limits are not the issue. He objects to screening the buildings from the lake, because it will block views of the lake from inside the homes.

OTTO: Once you reduce the view, you reduce the value. And then it becomes a property rights issue. And what you bought, and what you paid for could be taken away, and that has really been the genesis of all of the hue and outcry over this particular issue.

ALBRIGHT: Property rights issues at Lake Tahoe have already been litigated in the U.S. Supreme Court. Property rights advocates lost that case, but Otto says the Committee for Reasonable Regulation will still go to court, if necessary.

If the Committee does, it will be up against Dean Heller who heads up the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and is also Nevada's secretary of state. Heller says Tahoe's globetrotting glitterati are used to having their way, but he's not backing down.

HELLER: I have had homeowners come up to me and say "People don't come up here to Lake Tahoe to see the water, or the boulders, or the trees, or the majestic views of the mountains. They're here to see my home."

ALBRIGHT: Heller maintains that it's more important to protect the scenic quality of Lake Tahoe for all people for generations to come than to worry about the property rights of a few.

HELLER: You can build a monster home. You can build your 20 million dollar trophy home up at Lake Tahoe and still meet the requirements up here at the lake. All we're asking you to do is don't be the lake. Your home isn't more important than the basin itself.

[SOUND OF BOAT MOTOR]

ALBRIGHT: Negotiations have brought both sides closer together, but the matter will probably be decided in court. For Living on Earth, I'm Willie Albright at Lake Tahoe.

[BOAT MOTOR FADES]

 

 

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