Cheat-Seeking Missles

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Tahoe Burn: Regulatory Nightmare Without End?

The cause of the devastating Lake Tahoe fire, which burned down 200 structures causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage and who can measure how much heartbreak, has been found.

It is the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA), a bi-state land czar bureaucracy dedicated to protecting the clarity of Lake Tahoe at all cost.

Among TRPA's passions is imposing maniacal restrictions on cutting trees because ... follow the logic ... a gone tree means more exposed soil (i.e., the area where the trunk once was), which would mean more sediment would run into the lake. So cut a tree in Tahoe and look at thousands of dollars of TRPA fines, which TRPA uses to find more people to fine.

Nevermind that tree branches shade the ground, limiting ground cover and that tree trunks absorb no groundwater; that's their position and they've stuck to it. Of course, there was this one minor negative side-effect: Homeowners couldn't cut trees near their homes, those trees caught fire, and voila, no more house.

Now that so many trees and houses are gone, rain and snowmelt will have hundreds of bare, disturbed acres like those in the picture, to run off, pummeling Tahoe with silt and ash. Nicely done, TRPA; a shining example of just how stupid environmental bureaucracies can be.

TRPA's executive director, John Singlaub, says the agency does allow trimming around homes, but the message just didn't get out. Well, whose fault is that? The OC Reg reports people aren't buying Singlaub's line ... or his attitude:

"I thought our message was out there better," Singlaub said "I was not expecting this."

Singlaub was less conciliatory during his first explosive encounter with the public at a town hall meeting Monday, when the blaze was still tearing through forests south and west of the local commercial hub of South Lake Tahoe. Many in the crowd of about 1,200 booed and shouted down a defiant Singlaub as he tried to defend the TRPA's policies.

Two days later, when he resurfaced to tour the destruction with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, local reporters and town leaders interrupted the governor's news conference to pepper the TRPA director with questions.

What is TRPA's vaunted new leniency? It allows homeowners to clear pine needles all the way to five feet from their homes. Any more will mean too much erosion, they say, and big trouble. Not all homeowners went along with this rule ... and they were the lucky ones:
"I went around my whole property and took out every single pine needle," said Neil Cohn, 35, pointing to a blackened line where the advancing fire that destroyed eight of his neighbors' homes stopped short of his own. "TRPA came up here last year and gave me a warning but I did it anyway, and I'll keep doing it."
After all this, Singlaub is unbending: preserving the lake's clarity is still job number one for TRPA, he says.

That's absolutely true. Following the fire, TRPA may be talking big about fire protection, but a review of the executive summary of the agency's 2006 Threshold Evaluation, basically an annual report, finds lots of talk about water quality and runoff control, but a search for "fire protection" yielded no results.

My heart goes out to homeowners who lost their homes, not just for their loss, but because they have only entered the nightmare; they're hardly over it. In the years since their homes were built, TRPA has screwed down the regulatory thumbscrews and what was permissible then will not be approved now. And pity the poor soul who attempts to add even one square foot to his home during rebuilding. They will be burned in a firestorm of regulatory paperwork -- and ultimately denied, I'll bet.

I predict something of a range war in the Tahoe area in coming years as residents who love and have protected the land there for years are told by TRPA that their plans for rebuilding just can't be approved. TRPA caused the fire, now they're going to cause the political fire that will follow.

But let's not over-demonize TRPA. It is not that much worse that land czar bureaucracies from sea to shining sea. These agencies have been completely overrun with hardcore, anti-development environmentalists -- Singlaub says humans degrade the environment "just by living here" -- and their agenda is to push us out of the areas they regulate.

The policy train has wrecked in Tahoe. Will the land czars be able to get it back on track, or will be people demand real change? My bet, sadly, is on the land czars.

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