Lawsuit seeks to prevent Loop Road ballot question
July 20, 2016
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — A lawsuit seeks to stall a citizen-initiated November ballot question regarding Tahoe Transportation District's Loop Road project. The question focuses on whether the Highway 50 South Shore Community Revitalization Project should be decided by a citywide vote or the South Lake Tahoe City Council when an alignment option is brought forward for approval. On Tuesday, South Lake Tahoe City Council approved the question for November's ballot.
Jason Collin, Barton Home Health & Hospice's director and a South Lake Tahoe resident, filed a lawsuit with El Dorado County Superior Court of California on July 14, naming the City of South Lake Tahoe as the defendant, along with members of Let Tahoe Decide (Laurel Ames, John Cefalu, Bill Crawford and Bruce Grego) as "real parties of interest." It seeks "judicial intervention to prevent the City of South Lake Tahoe and its City Council from adopting or presenting to voters a fundamentally flawed ballot initiative measure, which, as drafted, is invalid on its face and, if adopted, would violate state law and unlawfully interfere with the City's authority as granted by State Legislature."
Collin said he filed the lawsuit because he is concerned that the initiative poses a threat to the community.
"As a concerned citizen and long-time voter, I felt compelled to step forward and challenge what I believe is an intentionally misleading and fundamentally flawed political effort that is trying to trick voters into believing something that simply isn't true," he said in an email.
Let Tahoe Decide submitted a petition to South Lake Tahoe May 23 proposing a ballot measure that, if approved, would prohibit city council from approving or supporting any part of the transportation project, which spans El Dorado and Douglas counties and California and Nevada. The initiative, championed by a group that has vocally opposed the Loop Road, aims to give voters a voice in the issue.
Because the lawsuit was not on city council's Tuesday agenda, it was not discussed by the council. The city will have 30 days to respond to the lawsuit from its filing date.
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Tahoe Transportation District's U.S. Highway 50 South Shore Community Revitalization Project, more commonly known as the Loop Road, is undergoing environmental review. The project aims to realign U.S. Highway 50 around Stateline's casino corridor and Heavenly Village. The proposal also calls for the existing highway to be reduced to two lanes to create a more pedestrian-friendly downtown area for Tahoe's South Shore. Depending on which option is chosen, the project would impact anywhere from 53 to 97 residential and commercial units.
According to a January Tribune article, the Loop Road project "is currently estimated to cost around $64 million. Funding could come from a combination of state, federal, city and private funding sources."
The lawsuit states, "as written, the measure is unconstitutionally vague … and, further, proposes to strip the duly elected South Lake Tahoe City Council of its authority to take action, even administrative action, with respect to certain land use matters. The measure, as drafted, also impermissibly seeks to prevent the City Council from exercising its statutory authority, delegated to it under state law, relative to state highways, which are matters of statewide concern and not the proper subject of a local initiative. The measure also proposes to impermissibly interfere with interstate commerce and the City's role as a member of Tahoe Regional Planning Agency — an interstate agency tasked with numerous responsibilities within the Lake Tahoe Basin, including transportation."
Collin added, by email, "For the sake of the future of our community, I hope the court will act swiftly to eliminate this calculated move to deceive the voters."
Susan Alessi, South Lake Tahoe city clerk, told the Tribune in June that the Loop Road project "is not a project of the city. City council cannot prevent TTD from proceeding with the project within the city, although dedication and abandonment of rights of way may require council action at a later date … No legislative action of the city can either prevent or authorize the TTD project, as TTD is an independent government agency."
Five people spoke in support of the ballot question during public comment at Tuesday's city council meeting, including John Cefalu, Laurel Ames, Bill Crawford and Peggy Bourland of South Lake Tahoe.
"I think you'll be very happy to have input from the voters," Ames said.
Cefalu added that local voters want to have a "say-so." He also listed inconsistent facts about the project so far as the reason for the ballot question and process.
"You should respect us as voters in our decision-making," Bourland said.
City attorney Tom Watson and Grego were not available for comment. Though Grego and Collin are both rumored to be possible candidates for open city council seats, only Collin confirmed that he's "considering it."
Caitlin Row, Tribune managing editor, and Autumn Whitney, Tribune reporter, contributed to this article.