KINGS BEACH - After four years of pensive anticipation, what's another 12-hour wait for one of the most momentous decisions in the recent history of the Lake Tahoe Basin?
After years of public scoping sessions, spirited debates, concessions and project alterations, the Tahoe Biltmore redevelopment project put forth by developer Boulder Bay was approved 12-2 Wednesday by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency governing board, inducing a weary celebration from Boulder Bay President and CEO Roger Wittenberg.
"I'm tired, but very happy," he said moments after the vote. "I'm happy the board looked at the science and based their decision on that."
Mara Bresnick, appointed by the California Assembly Speaker, and Byron Sher, appointed by the California Senate Rules Committee, cast the two dissenting votes. Sher exited the meeting before the final vote, but revealed his "nay" vote on the record during board deliberation. Thus, his absence essentially counted as a no-vote, confirmed John Marshall, TRPA legal counsel, after the meeting.
The four-year-long approval process - fraught with frequent procedural delays - culminated in a marathon meeting Wednesday at the North Tahoe Event Center, where many public officials, private business owners and residents convened to passionately express opinions during its 12-hour session.
More than 100 people signed up for public comment, approximately 75 of whom submitting oral or written comments. The ratio was about two project supporters for every detractor.
A solid contingent of the project's detractors argued the scale of the project is too large, compromising the North Shore's stunning scenery.
"We're concerned to see North Lake Tahoe moving toward becoming more like South Lake Tahoe," said Rochelle Nason, executive director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe, following the vote. "I'd be much happier with a smaller project with less height and less traffic impacts."
The height of the proposed buildings has routinely been a point of contention.
"We're disappointed that the outcome appears to be in favor of what many of us consider excessive height and massing," said Ann Nichols, president of North Tahoe Preservation Alliance, in a statement Thursday.
Despite consistent and vocal opposition, many in attendance Wednesday praised the project as an example of responsible development that would have beneficial impacts to both the environment and economy of the region.
"As an active member of Incline Village/Crystal Bay I have observed the 50-year development of this area," said Maryanne Ingemanson, an Incline Village resident. "I cannot remember any project being subjected to more scrutiny. The Wittenberg family has responded with decorum and made many significant changes to the proposed project to accommodate stakeholders. The community at large supports this project."
Brian Helm, project manager for Boulder Bay, said the company undertook one of the most extensive outreach efforts ever conducted in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
"We are very satisfied and pleased with the approval and I'd like to thank everyone who got involved throughout the process," Helm said. "We have better project due to the community."
While stopping short of vowing litigation, Nason said she would scrutinize the events of the meeting and documents associated with the project.
"There is a lot still to look through," she said. "It was a lengthy and complex hearing, so we have a good deal of review ahead of us."
When asked what lies ahead for the project, Helm said the Boulder Bay team would "wait and see how the project is received."
When further asked if he was referring to potential litigation, Helm confirmed he was.
Interested parties have a 60-day window, starting from Wednesday, April 27, in which to file a lawsuit.
The League to Save Lake Tahoe has a history of pursuing litigation against TRPA. Most recently, a federal judge granted the environmental watchdog group a major victory when it ruled TRPA must demonstrate its shorezone policy relating to buoys, piers and boat facilities will lead to improvements in water quality, as opposed to merely maintaining the status quo.
Barring a lawsuit, Helm said engineers will begin to develop construction blueprints this summer, with an eye toward putting a shovel in the ground in the spring of 2012.
Preliminary plans call for a two-phase construction project, with the implementation of erosion control measures scheduled to implemented at the front end of each phase, Helm said.
Joanne Marchetta, TRPA executive director, said Boulder Bay represents the type of public-private efforts necessary to reach environmental goals set forth by the agency.
"With science showing us that we can reverse the decline of Lake Tahoe's clarity by encouraging environmental redevelopment of our town centers, the cost of doing nothing is just too high for the lake," she said.
TRPA governing board chair Norma Santiago agreed.
"The board's decision today comes at a critical juncture in the path to restore Lake Tahoe," TRPA Board Chair Norma Santiago in a press release issued moments after the meeting adjourned. "Our communities need better direction from TRPA on how to keep good projects coming forward and today's approval shows that the agency is ready to move forward in partnership with private property owners to support environmental as well as economic revitalization."
A glimpse at Boulder Bay
Boulder Bay calls for the construction of a 275-room hotel with a 10,000 square-foot casino, 59 whole-ownership units, 14 on-site affordable housing units, 10 off-site affordable housing units, a spa and other amenities, while also addressing outdated environmental concerns at the Tahoe Biltmore site.