Wrecking balls are eviscerating Tahoe’s history one property at a time.
One reason this can happen is because the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency is the final decision-maker for land use issues in the basin. Another is no regulations mandate privately owned historical structures in the Lake Tahoe Basin be preserved. Plus, many people want new instead of old.
Two parcels in Tahoma illustrate the conflicting desires to preserve what exists vs. private property rights and the rules of today.
“For privately owned parcels like this there is nothing in the county or TRPA codes that precludes development,” land use planner Nick Exline said. He is representing Bob Buccola who owns the two historic parcels. “Part of problem with historic buildings is that none of them meets current building code.”
Already torn down were a 2,383-square-foot home built in 1932 and a detached garage. What should be completed later this year is about a 4,200-square-foot house on the same lot at 8305 Meeks Bay Ave.
One thing that concerns residents in this El Dorado County neighborhood is what they call the piecemeal approach to permitting. They believe structures on both parcels that Buccola wants to tear down and rebuild should have been heard at the same time.
However, TRPA can only make decisions on what is presented, not what might be.
Buccola withdrew the application for 8307 Meeks Bay Ave., and now is requesting a property line adjustment to increase that parcel so it could accommodate a larger structure. TRPA expects a decision on the lot line this spring.
Buccola doesn’t deny he intends to tear down the 1,634-square-foot structure built in 1930 at 8307 and replace it with a more than 13,000-square-foot house that will have nine bedrooms. He said the space is needed to accommodate his growing family.
The Meeks Bay Vista Property Owners Association wrote a 31-page letter to the TRPA hearing’s officer outlining all the reasons why its more than 100 members believed the demolition should have been denied.
Considering TRPA has never denied a demolition permit, according to principal planner Jen Self, that request fell on deaf ears.
Bill Magrath, secretary of the HOA, said the group ”is a voluntary membership group—for the betterment of our neighborhood.” He was one of the signees of the letter.
That letter quotes from a 1947 deed recorded with El Dorado County that was also submitted in full with the HOA protest.
In part the deed says, “That the premises shall be used and occupied only for private residential purposes.” “… no mercantile business of any kind or nature shall be carried on, on any of said lots or portions thereof, nor shall any hotels, rooming houses, or places of amusement be conducted thereon.”
The deed also says, “No person of African or Mongolian descent, or any person other than of the Caucasian race shall use or occupy, except when employed as domestic help by the owner or occupant, said premises or any part thereof.” (That language is worthy of another story about racism in the basin.)
Using the properties as a vacation rental, according the HOA, violates the deed. Buccola has a VHR permit through the county for both parcels. According to the county, to remain valid the permit will need to be updated with the current house configurations.
The HOA letter offered an olive branch of sorts, “If the applicant were to agree as a condition of a TRPA permit to record a deed restriction that the proposed expanded buildings on 8305 and 8307 will never be rented as a short-term rental and will only be used by the owner without paying guests, much of the neighborhood concern would dissipate—although concerns about traffic and parking on the right-of-way would remain.”
Buccola said he would be “surprised” if the houses were rented for than 30 days in a given year. But nothing legally prevents him from changing his mind.
When it comes to defining what is historical, all structures 50 years and older in the basin go through a basic review.
While TRPA has deemed both Meeks Bay Avenue residences historical, preservation by its definition is to have pictures taken, and a historic resources inventory and evaluation report created. TRPA’s Code of Ordinances says it must present its historical findings to the state, be it California or Nevada.
But in many ways this is a waste of time, at least in California.
“The Office of Historic Preservation has no jurisdiction over any private property,” Julianne Polanco, state historic preservation officer, said. “… decisions about changing or demolishing private property rest with the agencies that have jurisdiction over the property.”
Even though El Dorado defers land use issues in the basin to TRPA, Melanie Shasha, senior planner with the county, said, “TRPA sends reports, sometimes just the assessors records, sometimes an archaeologist report, to SHPO to see if they are ‘eligible for designation’. TRPA does not request comments from any other agencies such as the Lake Tahoe Historic Society. SHPO comments are the only document used to determine if a site is ‘eligible for designation’. ‘Eligible for designation’ means they can be noted as a historic resource.”
So, the county, like TRPA, is also under the misconception the state is an overseer of historic private property.
The historic report done by a third party noted “the cultural landscape appears eligible for listing on the National Register.”
Polanco at the state was asked if that designation would have mattered. “No” was the simple answer. “Whether a property is listed or not doesn’t change our authority.”
Not everything is straightforward when it comes to what happens with the demolished building.
“When we initially developed the historic resource recovery plan we suggested a ‘Craigslist’ approach where community members could stop by and pick up any of the deconstructed items for use in their projects. Ms. Self informed (my colleague) Molly (Armanino) and I that this was not possible because TRPA could not track how the historical items were re-used and that the re-use would not be from a recognized entity,” Exline said.
When asked about such requirements, TRPA spokesman Jeff Cowen said, “No one on our staff is aware of any such restrictions.”
Buccola, the property owner, believes he is doing more than required. He said he spent $30,000 to have the architect redesign the 8305 house to preserve iconic boulders, worked with his contractor to have nearly 100-year-old windows and other items repurposed in other projects, and is getting rid of a pier and boathouse that he could have left standing. He also said he paid extra money to ensure the quality of the photos of the historic buildings are such that they should last for a couple centuries.
Note: This story first appeared in the Tahoe Mountain News.