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Ninth Circuit Upholds Environmental Review for Tahoe Regional Plan Update

The Lake Tahoe basin is one of the most beautiful and famous pieces of real estate in the western United States. Brought to worldwide prominence by the 1960 Winter Olympics, Lake Tahoe has become a magnet for recreation and vacation uses and the attendant pressures of development. As with so many other special resources, the love of Lake Tahoe has also led to its decline through a variety of environmental impacts. The legendarily clear waters of the lake have been steadily clouding over the past decades. Given this state of affairs, it is no surprise that development and planning in the basin have been the subject of controversy and litigation. Such is the case in the recently decided matter of Sierra Club v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, a case involving the multi-jurisdicitional Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) and its comprehensive Regional Plan Update (RPU) approved in late 2012. The RPU provided for a new infill approach to future development in the Tahoe area. That approach and the RPU Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) attracted comment and ultimately litigation from the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations, who argued that the impacts of the RPU were not fairly addressed. The Ninth Circuit rebuffed these claims, allowing the RPU to become final and set the course for a new approach to development around Lake Tahoe. [Sierra Club v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, 840 F.3d 1106 (9th Cir. 2016).]

As a beloved piece of the landscape of the Sierra Nevada, Lake Tahoe will continue to attract the interest of land users and environmentalists. The RPU sets forth a course of development that should be familiar to California land use practitioners—an emphasis on infill and redevelopment, with greater density rather than outward expansion. The Ninth Circuit’s upholding the RPU and EIS vindicates this approach; whether it will yield tangible benefits to Lake Tahoe remains to be seen. The court’s decision is accessible online at:

(Matthew Henderson)