Lake residents see paradise slipping away

STATELINE — Norma Thayer found paradise on the shores of Lake Tahoe three decades ago. Years later, a developer did the same thing.

Now Thayer is among some 30 residents of the Tahoe Shores Mobile Home Park who are about to be forced out to make way for the Tahoe Beach Club, 143 condominiums that will sell for more than $1 million each. The lakeshore project is hailed as environmentally friendly, but that’s no consolation for those being displaced.

“There’s no place else in this whole area at midnight you can walk down to the beach, take off your shoes and walk in the water,” said Thayer, 82. “You just feel like you are walking on a cloud.”

“Here we are in our golden years, and nowhere to go,” said Betty Neff, 82. “It’s all about money and greed.”

Land conflicts near Lake Tahoe typically pit conservationists concerned about protecting its water against developers out to reap profits from the community that draws hundreds of thousands of tourists annually to its ski slopes, golf courses and casinos.

In the case of the Tahoe Beach Club, however, regulators say developers have worked hard to be environmentally friendly.

“Our board voted unanimously for this, and we are not unanimous on anything,” said John Singlaub, executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the land-use regulator Nevada and California created in the 1960s.

The agency gave the plan its blessing in August partly because a water treatment system will prevent approximately 11,000 pounds of sediment from running off into the lake each year and eliminate 7,720 tons of carbon emissions, a 63 percent reduction.

The plan also will restore two acres around a stream and enhance the natural ecosystem of a creek and meadow.

“I think they really hit it here in terms of environmental improvements,” Singlaub said.

The nearly 20-acre site is surrounded by ponderosa pines.

The $200 million to $250 million project will feature resident-owned condos selling for $1.5 million to $4 million in buildings resembling traditional Tahoe estate homes and historic stone-and-wood lodges with lofts and porches. It will include membership in a private beach club, restaurants, a fitness center, snack bars, all the amenities of a five-star hotel and a private, sandy beach as long as a football field.

“It’s a special place in the world, and it’s going to stay that way,” said Bob Mecay, president of the Tahoe Beach Club.

“We have an opportunity to make some real significant environmental improvements and aesthetic improvements. To me, it’s really urban redevelopment. It’s reuse.”

Mecay said it was “inevitable the current use would not continue. It’s worth way more than a trailer park.”

South Shore Tahoe LLC bought the property for $12.6 million in February 2002, and within months notified planners of its intentions.

Mecay said construction could begin next summer, but a slow economy could push that back.

Residents have been offered various buyout plans that the remaining 30 residents find unacceptable.

“I wouldn’t want to leave if I lived on Lake Tahoe and was paying $500 a month for rent,” said Tom Castaneda, the company’s vice president.

Many residents own their mobile homes, but none own the property beneath them. The 155-unit trailer park, once the site of a small airport, was built in the early 1960s when only a few casinos dotted the lake’s south shore in Stateline and neighboring South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

Singlaub said the project is part of an ongoing effort to use redevelopment to make environmental improvements and “get rid of old, tired architecture — in this case an old converted airport they put trailers on — which I think detracts from the area scenically and economically.”

“People don’t realize it, but there are a number of trailer parks in the city of South Lake Tahoe and, in most cases, environmentally they are a mess,” Singlaub said.

The plan requires the developers to provide 15 moderate-income housing units at a yet-to-be determined site and 39 units of affordable housing at an apartment building next to the trailer park. Trailer park residents will get at least six months’ notice before they have to move.

The buyout options include a $5,000 payment, reimbursing all costs to move to another trailer park within 100 miles or the fair appraised value of the trailer. In many cases the trailers are so old they can’t be moved, and often the appraised value doesn’t cover demolition costs.

The developers have offered displaced residents first rights to the apartments, but some said the units are run down and they can’t imagine moving into a 650-square-foot apartment.

Many of the mobile homes are nicely painted with well-cared-for lawns. But since people started to move out, others have fallen into disrepair with weeds and junk piles.

“This was a good neighborhood,” said Monroe Friedling, 81, who has lived there for 29 years. “We had picnics together and Christmas parties.”

“People kept their places up, and you knew your neighbors,” said Jan Christensen, 57, a resident since 1982.

The holdouts would like to sue to block the development but can’t afford a lawyer and haven’t found one willing to take on their fight for free.

Williams said while they continue to object to the change, most realize it’s inevitable.

“Except for Monroe and Jan. They will be standing on their porch with a 12-gauge shotgun to the bitter end,” he said.

Christensen, who has leukemia, grits her teeth and nods.

“I will keep at it until I draw my last breath.”

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