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Truckee, Tahoe growth coming to an end

The Truckee-Tahoe area is growing, but there is an end in sight.

Limited by geography, politics and even community values, new development in the region will reach an end – known as buildout – and will leave the Truckee-Tahoe mountain community a very different place. Predicting when that end will come is as much art as science, influenced by economic and population trends that reach well beyond the Truckee-Tahoe region.

But while growth may be the result larger economic trends, growth also drives economics locally. Development – from planning to construction, is one of the region’s driving economic forces, which raises the question: What happens when it goes away?



Meanwhile, environmental concerns are the push to economics’ pull on growth, and buildout’s pressure on Truckee-Tahoe’s natural resources also influences local policy.

Local government agencies stand between the influences of environment and economy, left with policy decisions on promoting, limiting or prematurely stopping buildout in the area, and then dealing with the consequences of those decisions.




What is buildout?

“Theoretically buildout is all anticipated development on the ground – the maximum allowed under the town’s zoning density,” said Truckee Town Planner Duane Hall.

For Truckee, that means completion of upcoming major projects, from Planned Communities one and three, at Cold Stream and Joerger Ranch respectively, to the Hilltop and the Railyard developments in the downtown area, and many other smaller projects in between, Hall said.

Also included in buildout is construction on undeveloped lots in existing communities, like Tahoe Donner or Glenshire.

The maximum amount allowed by the Town of Truckee’s general plan for residential either being built, or left to be built, comes to 8,329 units – or more units than already exist in Tahoe Donner and Glenshire combined.

Nonresidential (meaning commercial and industrial) construction has the potential to grow by as much as 1,766,489 square feet – or about 44 additional Safeway markets-worth of floor space in Truckee.

For the Truckee-Tahoe area, buildout is limited by the mountains, both as physical barriers and in the priorities of the people who live in them.

“The limit on our space is a combination of our location and values,” said John McLaughlin, Truckee Community Development director. “Other communities would fill up Airport Flats, for example, but even though it’s flat and easy to build on, Truckee has decided it’s not appropriate.”

How fast will

we get there?

The town has quantified what it will take to reach buildout, both in number of residential units and in square footage for nonresidential development, and has looked at how long it will take to get there.

The town’s governing document, the 2025 General Plan, projects nonresidential buildout occurring by 2025, with residential buildout following about five years later.

“If we continue growing at the same rate of the last 10 years, we could hit those growth points,” Hall said.

“The 2025 date is pretty aggressive,” McLaughlin said. “It’s based on a pretty healthy economy, with constant growth similar to our recent past.”

During the most recent update to the town’s general plan, Hall said the public input assigned a higher priority to such things as open space, trails and affordable housing than to accommodating development.

By favoring other elements of the general plan over development, the town reduces time spent on development, effectively slowing it – if only slightly.

“There are no restrictions on how much development can occur in a year. However, creating higher priorities makes sure development doesn’t take away focus from other things,” Hall said.

McLaughlin said the speed at which the town processes a proposed development through applications, permits and approvals also affects the rate of growth, but if things speed up too much, more regulation could come into effect.

“If we have sustained high activity, my guess is we would see political steps to slow it,” McLaughlin said.

Hall said one type of regulation used to slow growth is limiting the amount of development each year, such as the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s yearly allocations.

Beyond local government control, though, other factors can play into how quickly buildout is actually reached.

The limited construction season in the mountains also slows the growth rate. Hall said development may slow as land becomes less available as well. And then there are market forces.

“Buildout is based on the assumption of certain absorption rates. As we see in this little slowdown in [real estate] sales, there hasn’t been a slowdown in proposals for development. Development seems to be independent of the real estate market,” McLaughlin said. “But the market has done a good job of balancing things out historically.”

Mark Tanner, president of the board of directors of the Contractors Association of Truckee Tahoe said Tahoe Donner is a good example of how absorption can slow down.

“Tahoe Donner took 30 years to start approaching buildout; that was 6,000 units and there are still 800 left,” Tanner said.

Board member Frank Ross of the Contractors Association said population trends could also slow down buildout.

“Some are predicting that in 2012 the baby boomers will loose interest in skiing, so there is a good possibility the market could soften then,” Ross said.

But other factors could accelerate growth by eliminating lots to be filled by buildout, Tanner said.

“A lot of big parcels that could have had development potential are being bought up as open space,” Tanner said. “That can have a big effect on when we reach buildout.”

Because of all these factors, buildout won’t likely occur overnight, Ross said.

Keeping up

Although some perceive the Town of Truckee as “pro growth,” many town policies are designed solely to help the town keep up with market-driven demand for roads, services and other infrastructure, Hall said.

The town, as well as Truckee’s special districts, makes sure “development pays as it goes” through a variety of impact fees, Hall said.

Those fees – including fire-mitigation fees, school facility fees, and traffic-impact fees – are charged to new developments for the infrastructure and services that need to grow with the town.

Building in the Basin

Because construction was moving at a high pace in the 1970s and early ’80s in the Tahoe Basin, lake-area construction has already reached near-buildout levels, with the last remaining lots being slowly metered out by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

Compared to the 50 lots allowed for the Placer County portion of the basin this year, 1,052 of Dollar Point’s 1,811 homes were built in the 1970s.

In 1980, Congress gave the agency the authority to adopt environmental quality standards in response to rapid growth’s effects on the environment, and the bistate agency now allocates a certain number of building permits every year to each jurisdiction in the basin.

Predicting the end of growth in the basin may be even more difficult than in Truckee.

“Residential buildout is certainly possible in the next 20 years. However, part of that depends on the rate of development, not just allocations,” said Jeff Cowen, community liaison for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

This year, Placer county was given enough permits to allow building on 50 lots, after being allocated 49 permits in 2006.

“Placer County is ahead of the curve for getting environmental improvement projects on the ground,” Cowen said.

Despite the yearly allotments, Ross said he believes that some of the privately owned lots left in Tahoe will never be built on because of environmental sensitivity, the difficulty of building on the parcel, or prohibitive costs.


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