For years, the sound of pounding nails and sawing wood echoed across Lake Tahoe throughout the building season. But for the second summer in a row, construction crews sit idle. This famous alpine resort, cradled by the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains, has seen new construction grind to a halt as the result of seemingly endless wrangling between environmental advocates and property owners anxious to erect homes on their undeveloped lots.
Last June, in response to a lawsuit filed by California Attorney General John K. Van de Kamp and a Tahoe environmental group, a federal district judge in San Francisco issued a preliminary injunction against further building in the Tahoe basin. A panel of judges heard an appeal on the order this May, and now those on both sides of the debate are anxiously awaiting the panel's decision, expected any day.
``Nothing is being built these days but frustration,'' says Stephen Teshara, a local radio reporter who has lived at the lake for 13 years. ``People come to Tahoe to enjoy the scenery, and they can't see past the hole in their wallet.''
At the heart of the dispute lies a quirk of cartography: The lake straddles the California-Nevada border. For as long as anyone can remember, the two states have disagreed on how development at the lake should proceed. Dependent on the revenue from casinos that line the lake's southern shore, Nevadans have traditionally favored development. But many Californians have maintained that unchecked growth would be disastrous to the lake's ecology.
About 17,000 parcels of land zoned for residential use are affected by the building ban. Many of these parcels -- situated on environmentally sensitive land -- are owned by retirees eager to build homes and relax in the lap of Lake Tahoe, a deep, brilliantly clear pool filling the depression between two ancient fault lines.
The lawsuit was filed last April against the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the lake's regional governing body. The suit alleges that the planning agency's five-year plan for future development at Tahoe inadequately protects the lake's fragile environment and that no construction should be allowed until the agency produces an acceptable plan.
Many believe the appeals court will side with the plaintiffs and sustain the injunction against further building. If that happens, lengthy litigation is likely to ensue, suspending all new construction for as many as three more years.
``It's unfortunate that it had to go into litigation,'' says Attorney General Van de Kamp. ``We went to the court as a last resort. Lots of innocent people haven't been able to build.'' Van de Kamp says that even actor Cliff Robertson had called his office. ``[Mr. Robertson] said he'd bought a couple of lots 20 years ago and wanted to know what he could do about it,'' Van de Kamp says.
Studies of the lake suggest that algal growth created by heavy construction in the past and airborne pollution are causing the water's clarity to fade by approximately one foot each year. Some environmental scientists claim that, if current trends continue, in 40 years the huge lake will lose its unique transparency. Already, nothing can be seen that's deeper than 71 feet, compared with 91 feet 20 years ago, says Prof. Charles R. Goldman of the University of California at Davis, who has studied Tahoe for 26 years.
As the local politicians do battle, those who own vacant lots continue to pay taxes and sewage fees on their properties.
James and June Beckler of San Jos'e, who own a lot on the lake's Nevada side, hoped to retire to Tahoe this year. The Becklers say that since they purchased their lot in 1975, they have paid thousands of dollars in sewage and other fees for the deadlocked land. ``We have our hands tied,'' Mrs. Beckler says. ``If we don't pay the fee, they'll put a lien on the property.''
Mr. Teshara is one of many who believe the impending ruling on the injunction is likely to favor the plaintiffs. ``Lots of people think so, based on the strength of the [plaintiffs'] arguments during the court hearing and the response from the judges,'' he says.
``We're going to fight this until the day we die,'' vows Mrs. Beckler. ``And after that, our kids will take over the fight.''