Rating the View:
How Visual Quality Protection in the Lake Tahoe Basin Measures Up

by Peter Gower

Gazing upon the expanse of cobalt blue water bounded on all sides by distinctive, snow-dotted peaks, it is no wonder Lake Tahoe is dubbed the jewel of the Sierra. Nestled amongst pine forests and granite-strewn terrain, Lake Tahoe is renowned as one of the most prominent visual landscapes in the world  (see Figure 1). Four years ago the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA), a bi-state organization charged with protecting the pristine lake waters and overseeing planning throughout the surrounding upland, took an unprecedented step toward preserving Lake Tahoe's scenic quality by promulgating a stringent amendment to its regional plan.

Lake Tahoe  
Figure 1    
Lake Tahoe    

A full leap beyond standard architectural design guidelines, the TRPA scenic ordinance requires littoral property owners to adhere to strict building massing, color, texture, and vegetative screening requirements. The objective of the program, according to TRPA, is to quantitatively assess elements of the scenic landscape to mitigate visual impacts. As many are still becoming acquainted with the new scenic program, I feel it relevant to summarize the intricacies of the Lake Tahoe scenic protection model as a tool for quantitatively evaluating scenic quality. While such a complex program may not have a place in every code book outside the basin, it seems essential that professional planners consider this tool as an available option to ensure the scenic integrity of our communities and landscapes are preserved now and for future generations.


Since the Tahoe Basin emerged as a popular summer getaway destination for nearby Californians at the turn of the 20th century, tourism has punctuated nearly every facet of Lake Tahoe's economy. Visitors flock to Tahoe's many beaches in the summer and endure road closures in the winter for a taste of Sierra powder. The temporary population on any given summer weekend often balloons by 200,000. Duane (1999) estimates only 70 percent of housing in the basin is for permanent residency; the rest is occupied periodically and mostly on a rental basis. The underlying draw to the area is of course the view. Accordingly, scenic beauty is a valuable commodity worth preserving for businesses and homeowners at Lake Tahoe.

Scenic resource protection did not hit the planning radar officially until 1982 when TRPA identified scenic resources as one of its nine environmental thresholds. As the backbone of the agency, the TRPA threshold system dictates planning activities in the basin. Growth control measures are in place to maintain acceptable threshold levels. With more scrupulous eyes directed at the aesthetic quality of the basin, the true appearance became strikingly different than the pristine picture often painted when referring to Lake Tahoe. Researchers from both the agency and private sector highlighted the proliferation of lakefront buildings with contrasting rather than blending characteristics as the foremost detriment to scenic quality.

Scenic resource evaluation and management is frequently based on qualitative factors such as form, style, and composition. Evaluators pose questions such as: What are the key features of the visual landscape? How does the landscape look now compared with 10 years ago? Will the new development be compatible with the existing visual environment, or if not, how can the visual impacts be offset? Are there certain design characteristics that will reduce contrast with the natural environment? Widespread forms of visual quality protection include design review guidelines, ridgeline development restrictions, and sign controls.

Between 1982 and 2002, scenic regulation in the Lake Tahoe Basin followed the same lines as many other programs. Property owners were required to use earthtone and woodtone colors whenever possible to promote blending with the forested Sierra backdrop. The agency also imposed height limitations and setback standards from travel corridors. Despite TRPA's best effort, scenic quality in the basin continued a downward spiral, especially along the 72 miles of shoreline. Protecting the unique scenic traits found within the basin, the agency concluded, required a more innovative approach.

As a solution, TRPA created a scenic overlay district of sorts encircling the entire lake. The zone extends inland 300 feet from the water's edge. Within this territory, scenic impacts of new development are assessed and regulated quantitatively. The Shoreland Scenic Assessment Model is similar to the Visual Resource Management System employed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) as part of the National Environmental Policy Act review process for activities on public lands. Like these visual assessment tools, the TRPA model employs a numerical system to assign values to specific components within the landscape. Traits negatively impacting scenic value receive low scores while objects of high scenic value are assigned higher scenic ratings. Unlike the USFS and BLM assessment tools used in mainly rural settings, TRPA places greater emphasis on characteristics of the built environment. By paying close attention to the smallest facets of the visual landscape, TRPA hopes to bring visual quality along Tahoe's shoreline closer to the images of unadulterated shoreline visitors to Lake Tahoe still expect.


The Tahoe Model Explained

Shortly after receiving a mandate to place scenic protection under its regulatory umbrella, TRPA inventoried scenic conditions for the entire lakeshore. From this comprehensive survey, agency staff and consultants grouped linear sections of shoreline into units with corresponding photographs and annotations describing the traits of each unit and sub-unit. The product became the scenic resources inventory. This document now forms the basis of the current program. Since the original survey, most of the shoreline units have seen a decline in visual quality. The most negatively impacted units are therefore considered to be in "non-attainment" status and require heightened scenic protection efforts.

The scenic ordinance, put into effect in 2003, does not apply to every property owner in the basin. Only littoral property owners pursuing new projects within 300 feet of the lake and adding visual mass to existing buildings, creating new buildings, or proposing a shore zone project are subject to scenic shore land review. The initial step in the scenic evaluation requires the applicant to prepare an assessment of baseline scenic conditions. Because of the complexities of the system, applicants usually retain professional consultants to prepare the necessary calculations and paperwork. When computed, the baseline scenic score will reveal the total existing visual impact on the property and the overall contrast of all man-made site features. To reach the composite scenic impact score, each element is considered individually and then given a weighted average based on its contribution to the total mass (visible or not). A lakefront restaurant, for instance, will make a larger contribution to the total visual impact than an adjacent storage shed.

Printer-Friendly Format Printer-Friendly Format Facts of the Case