Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Clean Tahoe's annual report

By Kathryn Reed

Metal trash cans have one useful purpose – being a safe receptacle for ashes. When it comes to deterring animals, forget about it. The metal absorbs food smells that attract bears, raccoons and dogs.
That was some of the information dispensed by Clean Tahoe personnel in its annual report. The nonprofit’s 2007-08 fiscal year ended Sept. 30.
A new problem was the need to clean up after construction trucks leaving the Angora burn area. Clean Tahoe crews were out on Lake Tahoe Boulevard at least once a week picking up debris.
Assisting with the cleanup are work release crews from El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department. However, the 976 who picked up trash totaled the fewest number of participants in six years.
For 2007-08, Clean Tahoe collected 78 tons of trash in South Lake Tahoe and El Dorado County. Crews responded to 2,969 service calls. This is down from the 3,482 the previous year, but up from the 2,717 calls in 2005-06.
Ellen Nunes, program manager, said Clean Tahoe’s bus stop contract is now with South Tahoe Area Transit Authority instead of Area Transit Management. She said STATA has hired a contractor to handle snow removal.
“It should be smoother this winter,” Nunes told the South Lake Tahoe Basin Waste Management Authority board.
Clean Tahoe has regular routes and set areas, like Linear Park, where crews pick up litter. Personnel also respond to calls of garbage or larger items dumped along roadways.
Fewer appliances were part of the mix this past year. This is attributed to Sierra Pacific Power’s refrigerator buy-back program and No E-Waste free drop-off events.
Clean Tahoe hosts the annual Community Cleanup day in June at South Tahoe Refuse. It also is responsible for coordinating the local Coastal Cleanup day in September.
Clean Tahoe is also part of the recently formed consortium of local entities called Recycle Tahoe.

Supreme Court paves path of social justice

By Kathryn Reed

Few issues related to social progress have been decided by the people. The men and women in black robes whose job it is to uphold the Constitution of individual states and the United States tend to make the really big decisions.
Brown v. Board of Education was a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954. It crushed segregation in schools and other public venues. But white people didn’t automatically let in people who didn’t look like them.
Even with a black man about to take the highest oath of office in the United States on Jan. 20, discrimination is alive. An undercurrent of racism ran throughout the presidential campaign. Discrimination was evident with the passage of Proposition 8 on Nov. 4. It was evident on South Shore schools in November during Challenge Day.
One person who knows all about discrimination is Melba Beals. She harbors no resentment toward the people who reviled her, who nearly killed her, who treated her as though her black skin made her less than human.
Beals brought her story to South Tahoe Middle School in November, four days after about 100 of those students participated in Challenge Day.
Challenge Day is about challenging preconceived ideas. It’s about realizing fellow students and others in the community aren’t so different from the person in the mirror. Tears flowed Nov. 20 as students broke down stereotypes, acknowledged the hurt they had inflicted on others and that they are not alone in their struggles.
High school students participated in Challenge Day the day before.
It seemed appropriate to have Beals on campus that next Monday. Even though her experience as one of the nine black students to first attend Central High School in Little Rock in 1957 is something local students find in history books, her story is apropos in today’s climate as the country is at a major crossroad of change.
Until November, only little white boys had a role model of what a U.S. president looks like.
Through her quiet, non-inflammatory rhetoric, Beals told this rainbow colored mass of students seated on the floor in front of her about being scared, about the courage it took of everyone on the side of justice, about how life evolves for the better for all.
Girls can point to Title IX in the federal education code for giving them equal rights in athletics. This didn’t get approved until 1972.
Without it, the hoopla regarding Joann Allister at South Tahoe High wouldn’t even be an issue. The varsity softball coach and PE teacher is under fire from some parents and players because they don’t like everything she does.
During closed session at the Nov. 18 Lake Tahoe Unified school board meeting more than a dozen people spoke. Because it’s a personnel matter, testimony is confidential.
The board ruled Allister will be told to adhere to Ed Code rules – like letting athletes stay properly fueled and hydrated for competition. Her job will be posted before the start of the season and she will be allowed to apply for it along with anyone else.
In the future, after the end of each season for each sport at STHS, parents will have the opportunity to anonymously fill out a survey about the coach that will be evaluated by Vice Principal Jack Stafford.
Another social issue gripping the South Shore is the passage of Proposition 8, which makes it illegal for gays and lesbians to marry. The populous, 52.3 percent, said OK to this California measure.
About 100 locals marched near El Dorado Beach on Nov. 15 during a nationwide rally in support of gay marriage. It was a cornucopia of gays, lesbians, heteros, couples and singles of various colors and ages.
The issue is winding its way through the courts. Some wonder how a change to the state Constitution took a simple majority vote, whereas it takes a two-thirds majority to pass taxes.
Those in support of gay marriage are hoping the men and women in black robes do for gay marriage what they did for desegregation and equal rights on the ball field.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Tahoe bald eagle counts in January

Mid-Winter Bald Eagle Counts begins in January

South Lake Tahoe, Calif.--- The US Forest Service, Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit (LTBMU) is coordinating the annual mid-winter bald eagle count on Friday, January 09, 2009 from 9:00 a.m. to 1200 Noon, and the public is invited to participate. The purpose of the Midwinter Bald Eagle survey is to monitor the status of Bald Eagle wintering populations in the contiguous United States by estimating national and regional count trends, overall and by age class.

This year there will be an additional bald eagle count on Friday, January 16, 2009 from 9:00 a.m. to 1200 Noon to participate in. There are 26 stations located around the lake and the Forest Service would like to get these completely filled on both dates. A possible third survey may be conducted at a later date to be determined.

The count is part of the National Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey that was initiated by the National Wildlife Federation in 1979 in the U.S. This year the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is coordinating efforts in our part of the country this winter. The results of the count will be combined with those from elsewhere in the state and across the nation to generate an index (an indirect measure) of bald eagle populations across the U. S. Please visit the following website to learn more about the history and results of these annual surveys for several routes in the National migration flyway at http://ocid.nacse.org/nbii/eagles/.

Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group is using satellite transmitter technology to investigate the life history of bald eagles wintering and breeding in California in cooperation with the California Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Water and Power. A summary of the results can be found at http://www2.ucsc.edu/scpbrg/baea.htm.

A total of 10 bald eagles (8 adults and 2 immatures) were observed at 25 locations within the Lake Tahoe Basin in January of 2008.

If you would like to participate, please RSVP no later than December 19, 2008 to Rena Escobedo at 530.543.2733 or rescobedo@fs.fed.us to be included in the bald eagle mid-winter count. Volunteers will receive complete instructions.

You must be able to positively identify bald eagles and determine their age (adult or year of juvenile based on plumage) from a distance. Binoculars, the survey form and map, warm clothing, and a good field guide are essential for the survey. If you have a spotting scope or can borrow one, please bring it to your survey location.

If you have any questions, please contact Rena Escobedo at 530.543.2733 or rescobedo@fs.fed.us

Free bus rides in Tahoe New Year's Eve


Lake Tahoe, Stateline, NV –- The South Tahoe Area Transit Authority will provide free shuttle service, free transportation and reroute several bus routes on Wednesday, December 31, 2008.

Starting at 7 p.m., the Stateline Transit Center will be closed. All passengers should make their transfers between routes on Heavenly Village Way next to Heavenly Village Cinemas and Raleys until 2 a.m. New Year’s Day. This will affect Routes 20X, 21X, 23, 50 and 53. In addition, Routes 20X and 23 will not serve the casinos directly due to increased traffic congestion. Please walk to Heavenly Village Way to board buses.

Free shuttle service will be provided between 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. along Red Route 10 from the Visitor Center , to the Blue Lake Parking Lot on Ski Run Boulevard and Shops at Heavenly Village via US Highway 50 every 30 minutes.

Starting at 10:00 PM until end of service – BlueGO Routes 20X, 23, 50 and 53 will provide FREE rides to all passengers. BlueGO OnCall will charge normal fares with reservations 60 in advance. The routes on which free rides will be offered are Kingsbury Express service to Carson Valley , the U.S. 50 line, the Bijou line and Ridge Resorts service.

For additional BlueGO Transit Information call 530.541.7149. You can also visit the BlueGO website at www.bluego.org. Helpful representatives will be able to help you plan your trip on BlueGO.

BlueGO is a service of the South Tahoe Area Transit Authority which consists of members representing the City of South Lake Tahoe, El Dorado County, Douglas County, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, The Ridge Resorts, Harrah’s, Harveys, Lakeside Inn, MontBleu, Horizon and Heavenly Mountain Resort. Collectively, these partner agencies provide a coordinated transit system to reduce vehicle miles traveled on the south shore of Lake Tahoe and to improve the quality of life through the implementation and management of innovative transit solutions.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

South Lake Tahoe's gay mayor

Birdwell, state’s 1st gay judge, now mayor of S. Lake Tahoe
by Tammye Nash
The Dallas Voice
Sunday Dec 21, 2008

When Texas Gov. Ann Richards appointed him as judge for Dallas County’s 195th Judicial District Court early in 1992, Dallas lawyer Jerry Birdwell suddenly found himself in the eye of a storm of controversy.

The appointment made Birdwell the first openly gay judge in the state. And Dallas County Republicans wanted to make sure people in Dallas County knew it.
"They held press conferences practically every day asking that I resign because they said I was committing a crime every night when I went home," Birdwell recalled this week. "They were talking about sodomy, of course."

Birdwell didn’t resign. But the Republicans got their wish that November when their candidate defeated Birdwell in his bid for re-election, as part of a Republican sweep in Dallas County.

Now, 16 years later, the situation is much, much different: Democrats are the ones sweeping elections in Dallas County, and when Birdwell was elected mayor of South Lake Tahoe on Dec. 9, no one there cared one bit about his sexual orientation.
"I’m living in California now, where it doesn’t make any difference if you’re gay," Birdwell said in a telephone interview on Wednesday, Dec. 17. "It’s just not an issue like it was in Dallas when we were there. Nobody cares.

"The state voted yes on Prop 8, and I tell you, any of us out here were certainly startled to see it," he acknowledged. "It did wake us up, I can assure you, just like it did everyone across the nation. But really, most people don’t really care if someone is gay."

And, Birdwell added, he’s happy with the way Dallas County is trending, too.
"It feels good to see it, I tell you for sure," he said. "It’s like the old days when I started practicing law in Dallas, when the Democrats controlled the courthouse. It’s nice to see a lot of my old Democratic friends on the benches there now."

But Birdwell isn’t tempted to return to Dallas. He’s satisfied with his career and life in South Lake Tahoe, where he and his partner, Kevin Chandler, own and operate the Black Bear Inn bed and breakfast.

"I have always wanted to live in snow country, and I’ve always enjoyed skiing. And yes, in the back of my mind, I have always wanted to own a bed and breakfast," he said.

When Gov. Ann Richards appointed him to the bench in 1992, Jerry Birdwell became the first openly gay sitting judge in Texas. Local Republicans, he said, held daily press conferences calling for his resignation, on the grounds that he committed the crime of sodomy every night.
"We built the lodge out here and opened up on March 5, 1999.

We’re just about to have our 10th anniversary," he continued. "And we have thoroughly enjoyed running the inn and living in a small mountain community." But Birdwell also found time in his new life to be active civically - and politically - in his new community. He is in his third year of a four-year term on the South Lake Tahoe City Council, and is just starting his one-year term as mayor of the city of 25,000.

Birdwell also points out that things in South Lake Tahoe work a little bit differently than they do in Dallas.

"The way it works here in California, we have general law cities and charter cities, and most of them are general law cities," he said. "In the charter cities it works the way it does in Dallas: City council members are elected to represent specific districts, and the mayor is elected at large by the citizens of the city.

"But South Lake Tahoe is a general law city. And in general law cities, they have five to seven city council members elected at large to represent the community, and then the council members elect one of their number as mayor."

Birdwell has also been involved in redevelopment in the community and with the business improvement communities. And he was president of the local lodging association.

"It’s a lot different than city life," he laughed. "Here, you tend to wear several hats at once."

Bu regardless of his commitments to public life, the lodge is always Birdwell’s top priority. And he is very proud of the successful business he and Chandler have built together.

"We’ve been listed as one of the 10 best B-and-Bs in California, and we’ve been featured on ’Vacation Living’ on Home and Garden TV. They filmed a segment for the first episode of ABC’s ’The Bachelor,’ and in the spring of 07, they filmed another ’Bachelor’ here," he said. "It’s a good life here."

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Comment on Tahoe's bus service

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) wants your comments on how we can make bus service better (BlueGO, Tahoe Area Regional Transit/TART and Tahoe Transportation District/TTD shuttles) better in the Tahoe Basin . You can provide your comments in many ways – by mail, phone, fax, internet, e-mail – even in person.

Join us at the Transit Forum in South Lake Tahoe ( South Shore ):

Wednesday, December 17, 2008 - 3:00 p.m.

El Dorado County Library

1000 Rufus Allen Boulevard

South Lake Tahoe, CA

BlueGO Routes 40, 50, 52 and 53 along with BlueGO OnCall provide service to the workshop location. Call (530) 541-7149 or go to www.bluego.org for schedule info.

Join us at the Transit Forum in Sunnyside ( West Shore ):

Monday, January 12, 2009 - 1:30 p.m.

Rideout Community Center

740 Timberland Lane

Tahoe City, CA

Tahoe Area Regional Transit (TART) (Tahoma to Incline Village provide service to the workshop location. Call (800) 736-6365 or go to www.placer.ca.gov/tart for schedule info.

If you can’t attend any of the above workshops, submit your comments in any of the following ways:

By Mail: John Andoh, TRPA, PO BOX 5310 , Stateline , NV 89449 By Phone: (775) 589-5284 By Fax: (775) 588-4527

By E-mail: jandoh@trpa.org

Comments are due by 5:00 p.m. on Friday, January 16, 2009 to TRPA for inclusion in the public record.

V-Day 2009 in South Lake Tahoe

V-Day South Lake Tahoe will hold an open casting call for the 2009 production of Eve Ensler’s “A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant, and A Prayer” on Monday December 8th from 6:30-8pm. This is the sixth year we have been granted the privilege of producing a benefit production of Playwright/Founder Eve Ensler’s award winning play The Vagina Monologues and other artistic works. New this year we have the wonderful opportunity of producing something different. A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant, and A Prayer: Writings To Stop Violence Against Women and Girls is a groundbreaking collection of monologues by world-renowned authors and playwrights, edited by Eve Ensler and Mollie Doyle. Please be prepared to do a cold reading of one of the monologues we will provide for you. The performance date will be March 21, and rehearsals will take place Friday evenings in February. V-Day SLT has raised more than $15,000 to end violence against women in this community through benefit productions of "The Vagina Monologues." Join us this year as we debut another exciting play by Eve Ensler, with all proceeds benefiting Tahoe Youth and Family Services and the South Lake Tahoe Women's Center. For more information, please contact Debra Scolnick at debzdoodle@gmail.com.

TRPA budget woes

For Release Immediately December 4, 2008


Lake Tahoe, Stateline , NV – Because of declining revenue and deepening budget constraints, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency is taking a number of measures to cut costs and streamline its operations, Agency officials said today.

Additional belt-tightening measures may be taken in coming months, depending on how the continuing economic downturn unfolds. Because of project application fee decreases and other budget impacts, the Agency is taking a hard look at all expenses and overall operations.

“We are certainly not immune from the effects of the current economic crisis and are facing some of the same dire circumstances as our local government partners,” said John Singlaub , Executive Director. “We are committed to weathering these tough times with minimal impact on our efforts to protect and restore Lake Tahoe .”

The following measures have already been implemented by TRPA:

Beginning in January 2009, all public meetings will be re-scheduled to the Stateline office to reduce meeting location costs.

Hiring freezes and internal job restructuring.

Operational efficiencies and cost reductions in information technology and office expenditures.

Training, travel and salary increase freezes.

The Agency is also considering more difficult choices:

Staff furloughs and associated office closures one day each month for the foreseeable future.

Job sharing and work reduction.

Closure of the north shore satellite office in Tahoe City .

“We hope the community will understand that public service is an integral component of our mission and we regret any impacts to this area,” Singlaub said. “By moving board and planning commission meetings to our main office, we recognize the additional distance imposed on community members who participate but we simply can’t afford the extra facilities costs unless budget conditions improve,” he said.

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency cooperatively leads the effort to preserve, restore, and enhance the unique natural and human environment of the Lake Tahoe Region now and in the future. For additional information, call Dennis Oliver at 775-589-5235, or email doliver@trpa.org .


Monday, December 1, 2008

Boating rules change at Lake Tahoe

Beginning Nov. 1 the only place to launch boats at Lake Tahoe will be at facilities where qualified aquatic invasive species inspectors are present.
Inspectors can require vessels be decontaminated if they are deemed a risk of introducing invasive species such as the quagga or zebra mussel. Mollusks have invaded lakes across the country, causing serious environmental and economic consequences. They are carried on watercraft that is not adequately cleaned, drained and dried.
The rules were unanimously approved by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Governing Board in September. The goal is to inspect every boat that enters lakes in the basin, which includes Fallen Leaf Lake. Even canoes are being hosed off.
For information, call Dennis Oliver at (775) 589-5235, or email doliver@trpa.org.

USFS counting beavers

unedited Tahoe Mt. News story

By Kathryn Reed

Small, football size rodents beware – Forest Service officials are tracking you.
Wildlife biologists are looking for mountain beaver habitat, but don’t actually expect to see any of the critters. It’s all part of a study to see how many of the animals are living in the Benwood Meadow watershed.
“We are not getting the numbers we would like to see,” Rena Escobedo, USFS wildlife biologist said.
One definite habitat sighting was confirmed by mid-August in the Benwood watershed. Last year’s study in the Big Meadow watershed yielded about 20 sightings.
This year’s team started near Round Lake on the Christmas Valley trail on July 29 and is expected to wrap things up this month. They are following the Upper Truckee River down to the bridge that crosses South Upper Truckee Road.
“We walk the whole water area. We will heavily search the area, very slowly,” Escobedo said.
Biologists look for hay piles to indicate a beaver’s home. Beavers clip vegetation at a diagonal and then pile it outside their burrow to dry before using it to line the inside.
Mountain beavers are not marine mammals and don’t build dams. Squirrels are closer relatives. Their faces are small, their tails stubby. They can travel from watershed to watershed. These beavers have been around for about 40 million years.
They need water. They tend to favor low flowing water year-round and semi-soft soil so they can dig a hole into a bank. One beaver may call a 75-square-foot area home.
They live alone. Youngsters are kicked out at 3 months. Males serve one purpose.
The mountain beavers were studied extensively in the 1930 and 1950s. The data collected on the South Shore will be sent to the regional office in Vallejo for analysis.

Barton checkups

unpublished Oct. 08 Tahoe Mt. News column

By Kathryn Reed

For someone who doesn’t like doctors, I booked two medical appointments the same week. This is huge – especially since it didn’t involve annual poking or squeezing.
I did freak out the woman doing the blood draw at Barton’s Express Lab when I told her I tend to faint around needles. Her colleague came to her rescue. Neither could find a vein in my writing arm, so to the left they went.
I don’t know yet if my cholesterol is OK, but I didn’t faint. Hopefully, I won’t fall over when I get the results.
The wellness panel costs $40. It includes 23 lab tests, including a chemistry panel and hemogram. Draws for the rest of 2008 are on Oct. 18, Oct. 21, Nov. 15, Nov. 18, Dec. 16 and Dec. 20. Call (530) 543-5855 for an appointment.
Later that week I went to Barton University on Emerald Bay Road for one of the free quarterly checkups.
Alicia took me behind a screen to look for any signs of skin cancer. She asks questions, looks at anything I think is suspicious. She took a peak round my chest, back, face and hairline. Nothing to worry about.
She said the black speck I recently noticed on my neck isn’t anything to worry about until it grows a bit. My sister, who is a nurse practitioner and until this summer worked in an oncology office, said it wouldn’t hurt to get a full head to toe check from a dermatologist. It’s on my proverbial list of things to do.
Back at Barton, Carla was my next medical expert. She works for Dr. Kyle Swanson, who was called into emergency surgery just before I arrived. I told Carla about my right knee that has been hurting since ratcheting up my cycling routine during the summer. When I was 20 I put it through a car stereo. I’ve never had surgery on it and only on occasion do I feel it skiing or playing tennis. Cycling has been a different story.
Carla said I could have arthritis and cartilage may have built up. Surgery would clean it up. She said I could get an injection. We all know how I feel about needles. Knives give me that same fuzzy feeling. She then suggested Aleve for pain. I can do that.
With shoes off and blue booties on, I sauntered over to Suzanne. She used an ultrasound device on my right ankle to test the bone density of my whole body. I’m above average and a low risk for osteoporosis – at least at what was nearly age 43.
Dr. William Cottrell went over the results with me. He explained that bone is my bank and that when I start early menopause I will withdraw from that bank every day. He was adamant that I should start taking vitamin D supplements.
“Vitamin D is the new hormone. Think of it that way,” he said.
The next station had me on my back. Ken, Romie and Karen, all registered nurses, took my blood pressure for the peripheral arterial disease scan. People who have PAD are twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke.
It’s normal for one side to have a higher blood pressure than the other. Sure enough, my left arm and left leg registered 118, while the right side was 104 both times. The experts said I am not at risk for PAD.
The screenings amount to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars worth of free tests. About 170 people were seen in September. Reservations are necessary.
The next one will be Nov. 21. So far diabetes and sleep disorders are part of the panel. Call (530) 543-5537 to make an appointment.

Angor -- John Mauriello in escrow

unedited Oct. 08 Tahoe Mt. News story

Editor's note: This is a monthly article following one of the hundreds of people who lost their homes in the Angora Fire in summer 2007.

By Kathryn Reed

John Mauriello is about to move out of the Angora burn area – a place he thought would be home until his last breath.
He closes escrow Oct. 20 on a house in Christmas Valley. As of press time he was waiting to confirm numbers with his insurance company – The Hartford through AARP – to make sure they matched what he is expecting as the final payout.
His lot on Mount Olympia Circle is helping pay for the new home.
“It’s time for me to move,” Mauriello said. “I’ve got to get out of the burn area.”
The 69-year-old retiree has been renting in the burn area for the bulk of the time since the June 2007 wildland fire swept through his neighborhood and decimated his home and 253 others.
He had made an offer earlier in September on a different house, but the wobbly stock market shook the seller’s confidence and that person backed out.
After much consternation, Mauriello has been told he owes El Dorado County zero dollars when it comes to his tree removal bill. One more step in moving on.
Mauriello has been spotted at various events in the last month. On Sept. 19 he attended the art auction for Tahoe Lost and Found. Melissa Lanitis Gregory was the force behind this project to raise money to replace the $2,000 worth of books destroyed by the fire. It was Mauriello’s lost pizza recipe that inspired the project.
The auction raised $2,080. The “extra” $80 will help create a landmark in the burn area.
“There was some very good artwork,” Mauriello said. But he is not buying anymore substantial items until he is permanently settled.
He is still buying kitchen gadgets. Ask him about trying to find a stainless steel funnel or how time consuming it is to can tomatoes. That rant could fill the whole paper.
Mauriello also attended the Oct. 1 meeting hosted by the county to discuss taking Lake Tahoe Boulevard from four to two lanes. He and several others spoke out saying the road is just fine. Many ridiculed the idea, especially when no study has been done on the number of cyclists using the road or how many might use a trail or lane if it were built.
Contentious only begins to describe the atmosphere at Lake Tahoe Airport that night. Nerves are still frayed from Angora. Anything that would thwart emergency vehicles from getting to the neighborhood will not go over well with residents.
“Why did they try to disguise it under an enhancement program?” Mauriello asked the next day. That’s what the information the county sent out called it. “If you want a bike lane, I have nothing against it. I’m a biker, but let them build another bike lane next to (the road).”
He has driven a bus for Heavenly and knows what the roads are like on a blustery winter day with tourists pouring out of town. He is fearful that shrinking the number of lanes will cause more head-on collisions, reduce the response time for emergency vehicles and create hazardous situations.
Even though Mauriello is likely to leave the neighborhood soon, his passion for what he believes is right has not waned. Just ask him about replanting Angora Ridge.

Defensible space v. insurance companies

unedited Nov. 08 Tahoe Mt. News story

By Kathryn Reed

South Lake Tahoe Fire Chief Lorenzo Gigliotti isn’t leaving defensible space issues up to his staff. When calls started rolling in from residents who had their home owners’ insurance dropped, he took a look at some of the properties.
“Allstate says defensible space is 300 feet. In most cases that is well out of the control of the owner and beyond the state requirements,” Gigliotti said.
Lisa and Paul Huard had Allstate for 25 years, never filed a claim and were issued a non-renewal notice this summer. They met with Allstate agent Bob Harder after the Angora Fire of summer 2007 to assess their coverage. They increased it, paid more and now feel like their money was merely used to pay off claims elsewhere in the state.
They’ve filed a complaint with the state Department of Insurance. While the wheels of bureaucracy turn at a glacial pace, they opted to switch to Ameriprise.
State law requires companies to let a policyholder know at least 45 days in advance of a non-renewal. And they must provide specific reasons.
Allstate told the Huards that trees, the house next door and their then shake roof were issues even though when they spoke to Harder a year ago he said it was OK to wait a year to replace the roof.
The Huards put on a new roof this summer. They have removed trees. The California Tahoe Conservancy has treated the lot next to them. On the other side is a house. Behind them is Barton Meadow.
“It kills me to see those commercials that say you are in good hands with Allstate,” Lisa Huard said. “Corporate said I was denied by the underwriters.”
Harder referred calls from the Tahoe Mountain News to corporate.
“Allstate is inspecting properties in high-risk wildfire areas throughout California to help identify potential issues well in advance of our customers’ policy renewal date. If any issues are identified, and those issues are corrected or resolved prior to the renewal date, Allstate will renew its current customers’ homeowner policies, subject to applicable Allstate underwriting guidelines,” said Pete DeMarco, Allstate spokesman. “Allstate is taking responsible steps to manage our risk so that the company is in a financially strong position. Every property is unique, and greater clearance requirements may be warranted in particular situations.”
He would not speak to specific cases.
Allstate is the third largest insurance company in the state, with approximately 850,000 homeowners’ polices. It will not say how many of those are in Lake Tahoe or the vicinity. DeMarco said the company has no intention of pulling out of the area. However, it is not issuing new policies to Lake Tahoe home owners.

What others say

According to Jason Kimbrough with the state Department of Insurance, the agency will only track complaints about non-renewal notices from the burn area. It hasn’t received any. Nor does the state keep track of companies leaving Lake Tahoe, nor does it have a record of the number of companies operating here.
The Insurance Information Network of California, a trade organization for the insurance industry, says non-renewals are declining in the state. Tully Lehman, spokesman for the group, said companies are always assessing how much risk they have in certain areas.
Jesse and Sondra Garner are two other locals who received a non-renewal notice. The Montgomery Estate residents got a letter in March from United Services Automobile Association, a company that predominately insures military personnel. USSA had insured the house for more than decade.
The company sent an inspector to evaluate the property.
“We are very active about defensible space,” Jesse Garner said. “We initially said goody, bring it on because we are the best in the neighborhood.”
He is even a member of his neighborhood’s fire safe chapter.
He said the inspector was complimentary of the work they were doing. On June 4 an underwriter called to say their policy wouldn’t be renewed as of Aug. 11. The 11-page report was faxed to the Garners.
“It was so full of bogus bull. It is just laughable,” Garner said.
Someone on the phone old him the issue was that he lives in a wooded area.
The Garners are now with AAA – at lower rates.
AAA is obviously writing new policies in South Lake. They were one of the companies with good reviews from victims of Angora.
However, company spokesman Matt Skryja said, “Things are status quo, but currently we are reviewing our guidelines and practices.” He would not elaborate.
State Farm is another agency that is continuing to write policies.
“We have no concerted effort to not renew policies because of wildfire exposure,” said Vince Wetzel, State Farm spokesman. “We constantly look at the homes we insure on a case by case basis. We look at defensible space and we look at the risk they have like outdated roofs and the overall condition of the home to make sure it is in the best state possible to withstand wildfire.”

Defensible space

When it comes to assessing the threat of fire, DeMarco said, “Allstate’s brush requirements are based on many safety factors that may impact firefighters’ ability to access and defend the property. We look at factors such as the width of streets, distance to a water source, the amount of combustible vegetation, the degree of the slope, and the readability of road signs or difficulty in finding the property.”
The state requires a non-combustible area from zero to 5 feet from the property. From 5 to 30 feet the area should have limited flammable vegetation, with no ladder fuels and be well irrigated. Out to 100 feet the fuel zone should be reduced by paying attention to the horizontal and vertical space between trees and shrubs.
A guide to defensible space is “Living With Fire: A guide for the homeowner” which was put out by the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. For more information, go to www.livingwithfire.info/tahoe.
Even though this is supposed to be the bible Lake Tahoe homeowners are to live by, fire officials say it is a “guide” and not something written in stone. This leaves some residents a bit perplexed.
Leona Allen with Lake Valley Fire does defensible space inspections for that department. She can mark trees to be cut based on defensible space, while TRPA assesses forest health.
She likes to ask residents how comfortable they would be to have a softball size ember land on their property or dwelling. That’s the size that were flying around Angora and catching houses on fire. An ember caught her deck on fire, which caught the house on fire and made it a total loss in June ’07.
At the home of Jacke Crump and Cheryl Murakami, Allen talked about the direction of prevailing winds being factor, praised them for having firewood stored inside as opposed to outside where it would be considered an accelerant,
Crump found some of the decisions arbitrary, and questioned leaving some of the clumps of trees and wondered about the canopy of some trees being so close.
“Big trees are more resistant to fire,” Allen said. “It’s not arbitrary. It’s more individual to each property.”
The key is when flames next erupt, that it stays a ground fire and doesn’t become a crown fire.
The basin-wide policy set by TRPA says homeowners must have a permit to cut a tree that is more than 14 inches in diameter. Some homeowners want more control of protecting their property from fire.
In the Cold Creek area, Allen looks over the work that has been done since she issued a defensible space inspection checklist to the owners. It’s remarkable how few pine needles are scattered – a TRPA no-no pre-Angora. It’s not that erosion measures have been voided, it’s just that basin fire chiefs were able to rewrite some of the rules.
The owners, who chose not to use their names, have joined the local fire safe council.
The back has been thinned of threatening brush. White thorn, bitter brush and manzanita are still there – just not in a growth pattern this is combustible or that could be consider ladder fuels. The Squaw carpet is good for erosion and defensible space.
Allen said willows, aspens, birch and all deciduous trees are good.
Lake Valley may be reached at (530) 577-2447 and South Lake Tahoe at (530) 542-6180. Fallen Leaf and Tahoe-Douglas fire departments also want to help homeowners with defensible space.

Angora contractors fined

unedited Oct. 08 Tahoe Mt. News story

By Kathryn Reed

When Cal-OSHA sweeps into the Angora burn area, subtlety is not the operatives’ strong suit.
They file out of vans. Disperse. And then they set off a chain of cell phone calls from one contractor to the next as they alert their brethren about the state inspectors.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Industrial Relations, which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is under, did not have statistics detailing which contractors have been fined, what the infractions were or what the amount was.
Steve Yonker of Yonker Construction in South Lake said his firm was fined $150 for having a blade on a saw pinned back and not having the correct railing on scaffolding.
Yonker has five houses under construction in the burn area.
Erin Wiseman of Mcintyre Enterprises said one of their subcontractors incurred a “token” fine. She said her company has not been fined.
Most of the contractors who were contacted by phone or at the job site said Cal-OSHA protects workers and the companies. Most added that if inspectors look hard enough, infractions can be found on any job.
Some of the routine violations have to do with not wearing proper clothing – long-sleeves, hard hats and steel toed boots are required.
Some workers had hard hats. Some said it’s too cumbersome when working in tight corners. Gloves are required, but contractors say this impedes dexterity.
Safety glasses are required. Masks are mandated when dealing with paint. Cords can’t be frayed. Tools can’t be modified. First aid kits are mandatory. Safety posters must be visible. Fall protection from roof work is required.
Chris Spann of Erickson Carpentry out of Reno keeps a 5-inch thick project safety manual in his truck – a Cal-OSHA requirement for the two houses on Mule Deer Circle he is working on.
“They are out here to keep us from getting hurt,” Spann said of Cal-OSHA. He said safety issues are a priority with his company and that being fired for not following the rules is a real possibility.
Michael Brady owns a painting company under the same name. He had to take off his mask to talk to a reporter. He hasn’t seen any state inspectors, but said he is a stickler for safety and has all of his workers’ comp and liability insurance in order.
Ladder falls are some of the more common mishaps at a construction site. A homeowner on Mule Deer said he witnessed a non-injury fall behind his house on Sept. 30. Owners on Mount Olympia Circle know about a drywall guy falling from a ladder. Drake Niven knows of three ladder falls in early September.
Niven is building four houses in the burn area, with one being complete. He’s all for safety, but believes Cal-OSHA has some ridiculous mandates like regulating when workers take water breaks. He believes his crew can figure out when they are thirsty and hungry without being told.
“Construction is a dangerous job,” Niven said. “No matter how anal you are, OSHA is even more anal.”

Lakeview Commons takes shape

unedited Oct. Tahoe Mt. News story

By Kathryn Reed

Construction could begin in the spring to revitalize El Dorado Beach, including the pedestrian-bike trail and day use area.
This is the first phase of what has been known as the 56-acre project. It has been renamed Lakeview Commons. The dictionary definition of commons is “a tract of land belonging to or used by the community as a whole.”
The emphasis of the project since its infancy has been to create a place for locals that tourists might also enjoy. The initial phase is 4.7 acres, with 3.6 acres of that being touched by construction. The remaining acreage on the mountain side of the highway includes Campground by the Lake, library, city rec complex and other established uses.
One might say Lakeview Commons is in its toddler years as it begins to show real personality. Complete build out is anticipated for 2017.

What’s going on?

Tahoe Regional Planning Agency staff requested clarification on the original permit application that was filed Aug. 8. Answers were submitted earlier this month. The TRPA has 30 days to review that information.
California Tahoe Conservancy funded the planning phase and has set aside $8 million that could be used for construction. El Dorado County owns the two main parcels. South Lake Tahoe has a 55-year lease that expires in July 2023 for about 40 of the 56 acres. The lease can be extended if the use remains essentially the same.
The city owns more than 15 acres in the area. The lakefront area from Fremont Avenue to almost Rufus Allen is city property. A wedge next to it is owned by Inn by the Lake. El Dorado Beach is county property.
The initial phase of Lakeview Commons starts at Lakeview Avenue and goes to Rufus Allen Boulevard, and includes the shoreline to the highway.
An application is expected to be filed with the city’s planning department this month. Lahontan Water Board will be the next agency brought into the mix.
If permits are in hand, the plan is to go out for bid in late January or early February. The initial project could take one building season.
However, funds for the multimillion dollar project are not all in the bank. Grants will be sought as well as other revenue streams.
Caltrans is an integral player in this massive undertaking. The transportation gurus have for years had the Highway 50 project on the books. The Trout Creek to Ski Run Boulevard project, which encompasses Lakeview Commons, is in the design phase and should be in September 2009, with construction starting the next year.
The lakeside portion by El Dorado Beach is considered a water quality improvement project. Therefore Caltrans can’t dedicate dollars to sidewalk improvements there. The agency does have money for sidewalks and lights on the campground side.
Caltrans is responsible for the unsightly drain on the east edge of El Dorado Beach that transports unfiltered gunk from the highway into the Lake. The pipe is on city property and was put there via an easement.
As part of Caltrans’ 2010 construction project a water filtration system will be put in. One option is a Delaware Sand Filter. Caltrans spokeswoman Shelly Chernicki does not know if the old pipe will be removed, needed or replaced with something more aesthetically pleasing. Some sort of pipe will have to take the filtered water to the Lake.

Design elements

The concept on the lakeside is to have the area terraced from the retaining wall to the sand. Access to the beach will not be steep like it is now. In the future people in wheelchairs, using walkers or those who don’t like stairs will be able to get to the water.
The terraced area will have seating and mountain vegetation.
“Toward the east end we are still pursing a cantilevered walkway to open that area … to eliminate the conflicting use on the bike path,” said Peter Eichar, CTC program analyst.
No changes will be made to the parking area, nor improvements made to the boat launch. Bike racks will be added. A bi-level concessionaire building and restroom will be erected that will include storage for non-motorized boats for private individuals.
“The important message is this project will be a model of sustainability and green design,” said Deb Vreeland, project manager. “It reflects the forward thinking of the city and county. It will be the signature project to initiate a new generation of building on the South Shore.”
The CTC board in December will be asked for money to further the planning in the campground area of Lakeview Commons. Those plans have not progressed since January when the City Council and county Board of Supervisors approved the initial concept. Those plans call for an amphitheater, possibly removing some campsites, moving the city’s corporation yard and county’s vector control, and creating walkways.
One concept is to move the weekly summer farmers market to Lakeview Commons. On Sept. 9 the City Council viewed a video of the San Luis Obispo market which incorporates more than just fresh veggies. Something in this vein is likely to be what South Tahoe’s market evolves into.
Jim Coalwell, who runs the local market, said he is in favor of this location. He envisions being able to expand the market’s offerings. He prefers a covered area because the winds in Tahoe can wreak havoc on the canopies the vendors use today.
On a side note, Coalwell said the market will be back at the American Legion Hall in 2009.

Indian gaming and Reno

All lit up, but no one to serve by Ed Vogel , Las Vegas Review-Journal

Updated: December 1, 2008, 9:32 AM EST
On a sunny Monday afternoon in late September, the parking lots outside of the Thunder Valley Casino are jammed with cars.

Inside the Indian casino, dealers are doing a bang-up business with players anchored to most seats around the blackjack tables and slot players keeping most of the 2,700 slot machines busy.

A dejected Margaret McDonald, 67, mutters mild profanities as she waits outside the casino for the free bus to carry her from Thunder Valley, 25 miles northeast of Sacramento, back to her Santa Rosa home. She has lost her gaming budget at the slot machines.

Jump ahead two weeks.

On an almost identical pleasant Monday afternoon in Reno, most parking spaces are unoccupied in the parking garages next to the Circus Circus, Silver Legacy and Eldorado hotel-casinos.

More than two-thirds of the blackjack and roulette tables in each casino are closed for a lack of players, and only a handful of gamblers sit in front of slot machines.

The Silver Legacy race and sports book has fewer players than the 17 TV sets tuned to the American League Baseball playoff game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago White Sox .

On the second floor of these casinos are dozens of shops where you can buy jewelry, ice cream and Harley-Davidson motorcycle souvenirs, or toss a coin on a plate and win a big stuffed animal.

The vast majority are devoid of customers.

Like the streets of Reno these days, the Silver Legacy, Eldorado and Circus Circus casinos are immaculately clean.

They offer far more amenities than Thunder Valley, Cache Creek, the Jackson Rancheria and other major Indian casinos in Northern California.

What they lack are players.

Indian gaming, coupled with the recession, has turned Reno into an afterthought for some gamblers.

A dozen players waiting for buses outside the Thunder Valley all said they dislike making the trek over the snowy Sierra Nevada in the winter.

Summer is fine for trips to Reno, they said, except this year because of higher gasoline prices.

If they have a weekday urge to gamble, it is just much more convenient to take a quick free bus trip to Thunder Valley than to waste three hours driving on Interstate 80 into Reno.

"I like Reno," McDonald said as her bus arrived to take her home. "But I won't drive there in the winter."

Back in Reno, 79-year-old North Dakota resident Brian Beckson stands along an almost pedestrian-free Virginia Street.

"Reno is nice," he said. "This is the first time I have been here since 1962. I wouldn't come here in the winter. It gets cold and snowy."

Silver Legacy officials declined comment.

Both Indian gaming and the severity of the recession have contributed to the downturn in gaming in Washoe County, said Ellen Oppenheim, president of the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority.

"People are staying closer to home and trimming their budget a little bit," said Oppenheim, whose organization recently laid off 16 employees. "Those who game may come here three or four times a year and also go to Indian casinos a couple of times. Ten years ago they didn't have the Indian casino option."

But Oppenheim said the convention authority's studies show only 15 percent of visitors come to the Re no area strictly because of gaming, but 90 percent end up playing in casinos. Visitor totals have declined "a little bit," but still approach 5 million a year, she added.

Gaming no longer is the "first hook" the convention authority uses to promote the area to visitors, she said. Instead the agency emphasizes special events, the area's scenic beauty, and 18 nearby world-class ski resorts.

During the fiscal year ended June 30, Washoe County casinos won $997 million, the first time in 11 years that the area's gaming revenue dropped below $1 billion. Gaming revenue continues to fall in the county, dropping 205 percent in September. Revenues are down 9 percent overall since the fiscal year's start.

The casinos in Douglas County along Lake Tahoe's south shore won $320 million, $25 million less than in 1990.

Reno's last new casino, the Silver Legacy, opened in 1995, although there since has been major expansion at the Peppermill and Atlantis.

Fitzgeralds had planned to lay off 475 employees in closing its downtown Reno casino in November.

In contrast, gaming has made the Auburn United Indian Community tribe, owners of Thunder Valley, richer than anyone could have dreamed five years ago.

Tribal spokesman Doug Elmets and the Indians won't release information on the casino's profits or the per capita shares distributed to the tribe's 255 members, of which five work at Thunder Valley.

"Put it this way: the kids can go to a tribal school, a private school or any college in the country," said Elmets, a Sacramento public relations company owner who began working for the tribe when it was broke. "They can go to Choate or Exeter," he said, referring to pricey private schools.

Tribal members receive per capita distributions of $300,000 to $500,000 annually, according to estimates.

Thunder Valley even spent thousands of dollars in the spring devising a way to move swallows that had been nesting under the casino's eaves. The birds now nest in a $500,000 birdhouse built at the edge of a parking lot.

Elmets remembers the 1990s, when many tribal members were living in squalor 20 miles away in the Auburn Rancheria reservation.

"It was the most abject poverty you ever could see," he said.

"They were barely getting by in terms of food. They were living in homes that had planks for roofs and plastic sheeting for windows."

He infuriated the Reno media and gaming industry with the comment he made when the tribe opened Thunder Valley in June 2003.

"My quote was, 'The beauty of Thunder Valley is that it is between San Francisco and Reno below the snow line where no chains are required,'" he recalled.

But winter road closures aren't as common as some people believe, California Department of Transportation spokeswoman Shelly Chernick said, although fear of a closure may factor into gamblers' reluctance to travel.

Last winter I-80 was closed 174 times, totaling 133 hours, as 420 inches of snow fell in the mountains, Caltrans statistics show. But only 10 closures lasted more than two hours. In the 2004-05 winter, the freeway was closed 350 hours.

With its opening five years ago, Thunder Valley quickly began to siphon off Sacramento and San Francisco Bay Area gamblers who used to journey over the Sierra into the casinos of the Biggest Little City in the World.

The casino's interior, with 2,700 slots and 100 table games, was patterned after the Green Valley Ranch Resort in Henderson.

Las Vegas-based Station Casinos operates the casino for the tribe for a 24 percent cut of gaming revenues.

Falling below $1 billion in winnings is symbolic of the troubles Reno casinos have experienced since Indian gaming emerged in Northern California, said Bill Eadington, an economics professor and the director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno.

In terms of real dollars, Eadington said Reno gaming winnings are off 35 percent since 2000.

The city no longer is a "signature market" for players, and the gaming will decline more as Indian tribes begin to construct nicer facilities that offer more than just gaming, he predicted.

That is coming soon.

The United Auburn Indian Community found sufficient financing to break ground ago on an estimated $600 million expansion project to Thunder Valley.

Thunder Valley planned to add a five-star 600-room hotel, a 3,000-seat performing arts theater and expanded gaming space to the existing casino. Completion was expected in 2010, but a tribal official announced Wednesday that the tribe will probably downsize the project when it is re-evaluated in three to six months.

Doug Elmets, a spokesman for Thunder Valley Casino, said the declining economy prompted the change.

Construction on the project had already been halted with just five of the 22 stories built.

However, the Red Hawk Casino is expected to open along U.S. Highway 50 near Placerville, Calif., late this year.

The casino, operated by the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, will open with 2,000 slot machines, but has state approval to expand to 5,000 gaming devices.

The Red Hawk will capture traffic that now continues through the mountains or to casinos on the south shore of Lake Tahoe.

Eadington said gaming has "diminished in importance" to Reno, adding the city has done a better job than Las Vegas in diversifying its economy.

In September, Reno's unemployment rate was 6.9 percent, lower than Las Vegas' 7.4 percent.

But Indian gaming isn't the only thing threatening Reno's gaming industry. Elmets said the city is being hurt just as much by the recession and high gasoline prices.

"The recession has affected everyone in the casino business," he said. "People don't have the same discretionary income and are cutting back on visits. Nonetheless, this property is doing very well by virtue of its location and by virtue of the fact there is limited competition."

Eadington agrees that high gasoline prices and the economic downturn hurt Reno tourism this summer.

"But what is happening is a continuation of a trend," he added.

"Thunder Valley and Cache Creek are becoming true destination resorts. It is going to be difficult for Reno to overcome the challenge. Some will not survive."

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.