Planning under the gun: Cleaning up Lake Tahoe proves to be a dirty business

  • Lake Tahoe

    Diane Sylvain
  • The Tahoe Queen once ferried 500 people at a time on Lake Tahoe

    Kit Miller
  • Joe Thiemann in happier days on the Tahoe Queen

    Jim Grant/Tahoe Daily Tribune
  • Joe Thiemann being carried away after the shooting

    Jim Grant/Tahoe Daily Tribune
  • Ski Run Marina in South Lake Tahoe, former home of the Tahoe Queen

    Kit Miller
  • An "Income Village" house for sale for a cool $5.7 million

    Kit Miller
  • Steve Wynn (far L), Nevada's representative-at-large on the TRPA

    Jon Christensen
  • A time-share hotel replaced old motels and shops in South Lake Tahoe

    Kit Miller
  • Park Avenue is slated for a new $140 million hotel/mall/ski lift complex

    Kit Miller

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. - Joe Thiemann stormed out of a meeting of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) with murder in his eyes. The powerful agency had finally pushed him too far.

The quick-tempered 45-year-old entrepreneur had been running cruises aboard the Tahoe Queen, a 500-passenger Mississippi-style riverboat, since he was 20. The paddle wheeler was the center of Thiemann's life on Lake Tahoe.

Now the TRPA was regulating him out of business. In addition, his landlord was evicting the Tahoe Queen from its berth at Ski Run Marina, a prime location on the south shore of Lake Tahoe. A vote to deny him a temporary operating permit at another nearby marina seemed to be the last straw.

A self-made millionaire, Thiemann never minded stepping on toes to get what he wanted. But it wasn't working anymore. New forces were pushing out the old. They could destroy his life, but Joe Thiemann would have the last word.

Thiemann drove home and gathered up an Uzi semiautomatic rifle equipped with two 32-round ammunition clips, a Tec 9 mm semiautomatic assault rifle loaded with 27 rounds, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a .45-caliber pistol. He stowed the weapons in the back of his Suburban and drove to a gas station, where he paid with a check on which he wrote "my last check," dated Feb. 26, 1997.

Thiemann then drove to the historic Al Tahoe resort neighborhood. The planning agency could wait while he got even with his landlord for evicting the Tahoe Queen. The sun was dropping low in the winter sky when Thiemann burst through the front door of Michael Phillips' house.

"It's over now," he said. "We sail together. We sink together." He aimed the pistol at Phillips and pulled the trigger. Phillips flinched. Thiemann jerked the trigger again, but the gun didn't fire.

Thiemann began pistol-whipping Phillips. While they struggled, Vernon Vernaza, an 18-year-old friend who lives with Phillips, ran upstairs to find the gun that a friend had recently given to Phillips because of his troubles with Thiemann at the Ski Run Marina. Vernaza loaded the .45 and rushed back to the living room. He pointed the gun at Thiemann's chest and pulled the trigger. A half hour later, Thiemann was declared dead on arrival at a hospital in South Lake Tahoe.

Thiemann's vehicle was still idling outside Phillips' house. Judging from the weapons and ammunition stowed in the back, Thiemann next planned to kill members of the Tahoe regional planning board to settle his grudge with the agency.

"Who shot whom?"

Joe Thiemann's death shattered a fragile peace that was beginning to pervade Lake Tahoe after years of bitter conflicts between the Tahoe planning agency, businesses and environmentalists.

In the last year, the agency, along with conservationists, elected officials, and business and casino owners, had worked hard to promote a vision in which economic development and environmental preservation could work together at the lake.

Consensus had emerged in the form of support for costly tourism projects that included environmental restoration. The aim was to reduce the amount of sediment and pollution that is steadily destroying the legendary clarity of Lake Tahoe. In December, the Sacramento Bee had headlined a front-page story on redevelopment: "Harmony at Tahoe."

The Ski Run Marina, where the Tahoe Queen was docked, sits at the center of a $95 million redevelopment project that has replaced tacky motels, gas stations, and mini-malls with the "elegant rustic Sierra" Embassy Suites time-share hotel, a McDonalds, Chevron station, and park-like open space with retention ponds to catch sediment-laden runoff before it reaches the lake. Ski Run Boulevard connects the marina to the Heavenly Valley ski resort, which is undergoing a $90 million face-lift designed to accommodate more skiers.

 Phillips, the owner of the Ski Run Marina, had told Thiemann a year ago that the Tahoe Queen had to go. The 119-foot boat had become a problem, Phillips said, causing complaints from members of the community and driving other business away. There were rumors that the Tahoe Queen was seen dumping bilgewater into the lake.

In rejecting Thiemann's last-ditch request for a temporary permit to resume tours from a nearby marina, the planning board cited the Tahoe Queen's long history of violating environmental and safety regulations, including dredging standards and maximum passenger standards. Just two days earlier, California water-quality officials had issued a cleanup and abatement order after discovering open barrels of hazardous waste abandoned at the marina.

At the regional planners' hearing on Feb. 26, Thiemann and Phillips accused each other of mishandling hazardous waste at the dock. Thiemann said he had been locked out of the marina and was unable to finish the cleanup. "We got set up," Thiemann said. Phillips said that was a lie.

Thiemann's attorney, Gregg Lien - who regularly appears before the TRPA representing the Tahoe Sierra Preservation Council, a property-rights group - told the board that the Tahoe Queen's 100 workers would have to be laid off immediately.

"We're talking about a business that is literally teetering on the brink of going under," he said. Lien told the board their vote was "do or die for us." By sundown, his rhetoric rang eerily true.

A few days after the shooting, the Tahoe Daily Tribune tried to lay Joe Thiemann to rest with an editorial entitled "Who shot whom?" The paper had gotten a few phone calls blaming the TRPA for Thiemann's death. "It must have been heartbreaking to watch everything he built for more than 20 years fall apart," the paper allowed. But, it concluded, "there is only one man responsible for Joe Thiemann's death: Joe Thiemann." No charges are being filed in the case, according to the district attorney's office.

There were others who saw Thiemann's death as a warning sign. For Michael Bellik, who described himself as a friend in a letter to the paper, Thiemann represented "a dying local business community crying out for help."

"There isn't a sane person who condones Joe Thiemann's actions," wrote Mark Behrendsen, "but anyone who has ever come in contact with the TRPA certainly understands." Behrendsen wondered who else might be "caught in the crossfire between (Tahoe's regional planning board) and the next person standing in the long line of desperate people outside of the TRPA's offices."

I thought about Joe Thiemann as I watched a parade of angry residents confront the board at their next meeting, in March. I wondered if any of them harbored any of the rage that had set off Thiemann.

Out the window, the sun was shining on the sapphire-blue lake, reflecting distant snow-capped peaks. If not for the view, this could have been a planning meeting in Anywhere, USA. The appointed board members - representing five counties, one incorporated city, and two states that share the lake - endured with glazed stares the ranting public.

There was no mention of Thiemann at the meeting. The only sign that something out of the ordinary might have happened recently was a sleepy-eyed deputy sheriff who showed up late and sat by the door reading a romance novel.

Yet the regional agency that met here is said to wield more power than any other planning agency in the country. Towns and counties in the West might well see it as a test case for strong planning after decades of few controls on tourism-driven development.

A new alliance

"The battle between the environment and business was really joined at Lake Tahoe in the 1960s," said Steve Teshara, executive director of the Lake Tahoe Gaming Alliance, when I interviewed him in November.

Teshara represents the casinos on the southeast shore and sits on the TRPA capital financing committee, which advises the agency on putting together funding and partnerships with other agencies to accomplish its goals. "We've only recently learned to cooperate and work together," said Teshara.

"For many years we had one of the most bitter environmental battles in the country," said Rochelle Nason, director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe. "We still have environmental wars, but they're comparatively small scale. We've transcended partisanship. We work closely with the casinos and ski resorts now."

In recent years, the league has found powerful allies at the top of the tourism industry, such as Teshara and casino mogul Steve Wynn, who owns a lakeside mansion and was appointed to the TRPA board two years ago as the state of Nevada's representative-at-large. Wynn's backed a successful campaign in last fall's election for a $20 million bond to pay for erosion control and restoration projects at the lake.

Environmentalists such as Nason have found that by allying with the most powerful segment of the tourism industry - the casinos, big hotels and ski resorts - they might be strong enough to curb roadside tourism, vacation-home sprawl, traffic clogging the roads and noisy jet skiers.

The alliance is possible because the major tourism and gambling operators have become convinced that plummeting gambling profits in recent years can be blamed on the day-trippers who crowd the lake, rendering it unappealing for the weekend-and-longer visitors that are their bread and butter. They have found that by incorporating restoration, they can gain approval for new upscale projects, the ones designed to attract visitors who stay longer and spend more money. These new projects both incorporate restoration and replace the old motels, roadside food places and T-shirt shops that serve the day visitors.

"There is no question what our bottom line is: It's the environment," Pam Drum, a spokeswoman for the TRPA, told me. "You can ski anywhere. You can gamble almost anywhere now. What makes us truly unique is Lake Tahoe. And businesses here have realized that the quality of the natural environment is their competitive edge."

"The project is the fix"

"It must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords," Mark Twain wrote after an expedition to Lake Tahoe in 1861.

"So singularly clear was the water, that where it was only 20 or 30 feet deep the bottom was so perfectly distinct that the boat seemed floating in the air! Yes, where it was even 80 feet deep. Every little pebble was distinct, every speckled trout, every hand's-breadth of sand ... the water was not merely transparent but dazzlingly, brilliantly so."

The legendary clarity of Lake Tahoe was first measured by naturalist John LeConte, who lowered a white dinner plate into the lake in 1873 and reported that it was clearly visible at 108 feet.

These days scientists still use the same method to track the decline in the lake's clarity, but their plate-sized white disk disappears from view 70 feet down. That figure diminishes by a foot and a half each year.

The clear blue waters of the lake can still take your breath away. But what you're more likely to see if you peer into the depths, as I did kayaking along the shore of Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park this spring, is green boulders covered with algae, beer cans, plastic bags, and other assorted detritus of our recreational society.

Lake Tahoe is ringed by public land - 70 percent of the basin is national forest land. The steep mountainsides are covered with what the Forest Service calls "dog hair stands' - unnaturally dense stands of dead and dying pine trees that are the second-growth legacy of clear-cutting the Tahoe basin for the silver mines of the nearby Comstock Lode. The forest is a tinderbox.

The Forest Service has started using selective salvage logging and prescribed burns in the basin, but burning is limited by the short dry season and strict air-quality standards. Every logging project is hotly contested by conservationists, nearby property owners, or both.

It's unclear that burning and thinning the forest will help much anyway. As with so many of Lake Tahoe's problems, there is no quick fix for the dying forests, just as there is none for reversing the steady deterioration of the lake. Scientists say it takes 700 years before the total volume of the 1,645 foot deep lake is replenished by streams flowing in.

From some perspectives, it seems too late to save Lake Tahoe. A long history of tourism and industry has pushed the basin to the brink. More than a century ago, when paddle wheelers carrying tourists shared the lake with great rafts of logs bound for the Comstock silver mines and the transcontinental railroad, Lake Tahoe may have seemed big enough to sustain it all. It hasn't seemed that big in a long time.

Tourism at Lake Tahoe took off with the post-World War II boom, and development escalated after the 1960 Winter Olympics were held at nearby Squaw Valley. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, formed in 1969, tried to catch up, but it was stalled by property owners and local politicians. By the time the agency adopted "threshold standards' in 1980, the "carrying capacity" of the basin was overloaded.

In the 1980s, environmentalists won a court injunction against new construction in the Tahoe basin because pollution was clouding the clear waters of the lake. A court-supervised settlement included a series of consensus-building workshops among planners, environmentalists and businesses that set the stage for the cooperative planning now supposed to be the hallmark of Lake Tahoe.

These days the regional planning agency's slogan is "The project is the fix." But not everybody agrees.

"It's gone straight to hell."

" 'The project is the fix,' sounds like it came right out of 1984 by George Orwell," said Laurel Ames.

Formerly the director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe, Ames is an outspoken critic of redevelopment and of her colleagues for going along with it. Now the director of the Sierra Nevada Alliance, a regional environmental group, Ames makes it clear that she speaks only for herself as a longtime resident and not for the alliance when she talks about Tahoe.

Ames grew up in a small Swiss Alpine-style house on Lake Tahoe Boulevard, the main lakefront drag in South Lake Tahoe. When her family moved there in 1947, the town was home to 300 residents and mostly boarded up from Labor Day to Memorial Day. It now has 45,000 year-round residents.

"It's changed from a funky little summer-only resort into the Market Street of the Sierra," said Ames. Her childhood home has been turned into a cappuccino bar.

These days, Ames lives in a condo-style wood home on a meadow overlooking the Upper Truckee River in South Lake Tahoe. Her house was built in 1971 "in a meadow where it shouldn't be," she admitted, "but I didn't know better then." Neither did a lot of other people, she added.

There were essentially two opportunities to preserve Lake Tahoe in the last century, Ames said, but both came at bad times.

At the turn of the century, John Muir and the newly formed Sierra Club led an effort to create a national park in the Sierra Nevada with Lake Tahoe as the crown jewel. But a bill by Nevada Sen. William Stewart, which would have swapped private holdings in the basin for public lands elsewhere, failed. Critics said the government would be trading already logged land around Lake Tahoe for valuable timber land elsewhere, and private-property owners at Tahoe should not get a windfall.

The interstate compact that created the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency created a second opportunity in the 1970s, Ames said, before "so many vacant lots got built on.

"There were 17,000 vacant lots here in 1972, but it was basically business as usual," Ames continued. "Local officials got their backs up and did everything they could to sabotage it. They issued permits, built roads without permits, brought in bulldozers. There was so much short-sighted resistance."

Ames believes that the lesson Tahoe holds for the rest of the Sierra Nevada is that "you're not going to win the hearts and minds of people with regulations. But it's a new era, too," she said. "People don't think admitting you're an environmentalist is like admitting you're a communist. It's OK to be an environmentalist now. We're working with people who want to protect their areas."

Ames remains critical of the new consensus around redevelopment at Lake Tahoe. "The emphasis is on development," said Ames. "Restoration is thrown in. It's backwards. Under the old plan, Heavenly Valley was required to be in compliance now. But under "the project is the fix," they get 10 more years to be in compliance. The additional sedimentation that comes off Heavenly Valley in the next ten years will result in a loss of 19 inches of clarity in the lake.

"Taking out a lot of decrepit motels is a good idea," she said. "Replacing them with something as schlocky as Embassy Suites right in the middle of the view of the lake is just the next era's version of bad planning.

"I spent a lot of my life working very hard to protect Tahoe," she said. "I think it's too late now. It's gone straight to hell. I don't get involved in local issues very often anymore. I went through a period of mourning for Tahoe."

Jet ski showdown

Joe Thiemann's run-in with the TRPA would have been minor news around Lake Tahoe if he hadn't decided to go out in a hail of bullets. The fireworks that day were supposed to be over a vote by the board to ban so-called "personal watercraft' - those high-pitched motorcycles of the water, Jet Skis, Sea Doos and the like - from the lake.

"Jet ski showdown" read a front-page headline in the Tahoe Tribune before the February board meeting where Thiemann's request for a permit was denied. Jet Skis became the center of controversy when the TRPA's shore-zone committee, which is chaired by Steve Wynn, began getting on their case last fall. The shore-zone committee had set out to study noise but ended up focusing on pollution. The two-stroke engines used by personal watercraft don't have an oil crankcase like bigger four-stroke engines, so oil is mixed with fuel to run the engines. That makes them run dirtier and spew the unburned fuel-oil mix into the lake. Wynn likened it to a major oil spill and led the committee to recommend banning the engines.

The issue of pollution is a real one but the controversy came to embody the schism between proletarian and elite uses of the lake. Class conflict is often expressed through environmental issues at Lake Tahoe. With a mansion on the lake in Incline Village next door to his friend Michael Milken, Wynn is an easy target.

"Are the watercraft too loud when you're sitting on your pier sipping champagne, counting your money, or polishing your jet boat?" Jake Moule, a Tahoe City resident, asked in a letter to a local paper. "Now I know I'm just a lowly local who just works for a living, but I sure would like to know why the TRPA board of directors has people on it who don't live here year-round (two-month locals) and others who have been in the area only for four years? I say we need to change the way the members get on the board of the TRPA - like voting by the people of Tahoe, not just showing up at a meeting, donating $10,000 and boom, you're on the TRPA board of directors."

Wynn has been the target of such comments since he joined the board, but they haven't made him or the TRPA back down. At the February meeting, the board directed the agency to come up with an ordinance to ban two-stroke engines on Lake Tahoe by the summer of 1999. The board also moved to limit the hours of Jet Ski rentals and establish no-wake zones and speed limits that would allow people to have a normal conversation when they are sitting four to six feet apart on the beach.

The issue was still emotional and hot a month later, but Wynn sat calmly with his back to a picture window that looked out on a public beach and a magnificent view of the wind-chopped lake.

"We can't back down," Wynn said to a fellow board member at the beginning of the meeting. "I'll throw my body in front of the train. We sent a message to those guys. And as long as I'm around, we won't back down, until they get an exhaust pipe that doesn't put fuel in the lake."

Later, Wynn told the board that his "friends" at Sea Doo are developing a quieter engine that will not spew gas into the lake and that they hope to have it ready by the deadline at Lake Tahoe.

A lot of people look askance at Steve Wynn, but he's also won grudging respect. "The agency needs to gain public confidence," he said during a break in the meeting. "If everybody thought of TRPA as a friend, they would agree to fees and projects, and we would have more to restore streams, stop runoff, all the things that make the lake dirty. But you need public sympathy to do it. "

"Income Village"

Wynn lives in Incline Village, just a few miles down the road from Kings Beach, where the March meeting was held. Although the two towns sit just across the state line from each other along the north shoreline, Kings Beach and Incline Village illustrate another large divide at Lake Tahoe. According to a study last year by the Sierra Business Council, the Tahoe basin area is both the wealthiest part of the Sierra Nevada and the place with the greatest gap between rich and poor.

In Kings Beach, run-down apartment complexes are filled with Mexican families living and sleeping in shifts and working in the casinos, restaurants and hotels. In Incline Village, just down the street from Wynn's home, a house is on the market for $5.7 million.

At the meeting in March, there were two development proposals that hit close to home for Wynn and that cut to the core of the TRPA's predicaments. At one site, the board denied a homeowner a permit to build an addition to a house because the property is in a "stream environment zone." The owner wasn't happy, but he took the defeat calmly.

At the other site, the board allowed a new development on a wooded streamside lot. The plan called for 23 single-family condos, a stream restoration project, and a 15-unit affordable housing apartment building. Its studio apartments would be sold for $80,000, which is low-cost for that community.

The neighbors were not pleased. One of them, Ed Strauss, a curmudgeonly older man with a baseball cap pulled down over his eyes, slouched to the podium. "You know what Incline Village is called?" he said. "Income Village. People here don't want to look at junk cars and a 'condo-manium' rented to minorities."

Other neighbors were equally vehement in their opposition to the affordable housing unit. The developer defended the project. "It's not like we're coming into Beverly Hills and building junk," said James Borreli. "It's a neighborhood of fixer-uppers." Borreli added that he didn't really want to build the affordable units since they wouldn't turn a profit, but the TRPA had mandated the affordable housing as part of a program to diminish commuter traffic around Lake Tahoe. Many of the TRPA's staff live outside the Tahoe basin.

When the board began discussing the project, Wynn spoke up. "I thought the comment about minorities was very unfortunate," he said, "and I'd like to distinguish ourselves from that." But Wynn also made it clear that he didn't favor affordable housing in the neighborhood, and he questioned why an environmental agency should even be pushing affordable housing.

"I think we need affordable housing," said board member John Upton. "If we don't do what we can, there will still be demand and I know where it will go - over the hill to Reno - and that creates a commute situation."

In the end, the regional board approved the project, but left the door open for the developer to come back and request elimination of the affordable housing unit.

Afterward, a well-coifed woman with flashy sunglasses approached Borreli. "This may not be Beverly Hills," she hissed, before stalking out of the room. "But this is my Beverly Hills."

Lake Tahoe 89449

Her Beverly Hills, Joe Thiemann's place to run his own ship, a spot in the West where working stiffs can jet-ski past mansions, a living monument to the ravages of logging and careless tourism development, and a setting for an unlikely coalition of casino moguls and environmentalists to pull Lake Tahoe back from what they believe is certain ecological and economic doom.

The problems of the New West are all here, along with the wealth that some believe can save Tahoe. From a hopeful perspective, the restoration flowing from high-end redevelopment will eventually halt the degradation of the lake, and years later, begin to reverse the trend. But there are many who believe that the lake is being hijacked by the well-to-do. And it is all for nothing, the pessimists add, because it is already too late to restore the lake.

Then there is the question of what kind of community comes into being as big money is linked to environmental cleanup. No one thinks the Tahoe Basin will slip back to the develop-as-you-like, pollute-as-you-like old days, a conclusion businessman Joe Thiemann couldn't accept. But the coalition backing the TRPA's new approach could have some hard lessons to learn,too.

As Tahoe becomes an exclusive enclave, a place where day-trippers, resort workers and people looking for a low-end piece of paradise in the West are less and less welcome, there are social consequences. What gets shunted aside by planners can come back to haunt them. Parked at an overlook high above the pristine-appearing lake after the March meeting, I tried to imagine Tahoe's future. At some point, it could be important for the rest of the West; in some places, it might even be a matter of life or death.

Jon Christensen lives and writes in Carson City, Nevada.

Three sidebars accompany this feature story:

- The mission is simple: restore Lake Tahoe

- Here come Clinton and Gore

- Three voices on Lake Tahoe

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