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Sounds of silence, not buzzsaws, echo across alpine Lake Tahoe. Property owners, environmentalists await jurists' ruling on building ban

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For years, the sound of pounding nails and sawing wood echoed across Lake Tahoe throughout the building season. But for the second summer in a row, construction crews sit idle. This famous alpine resort, cradled by the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains, has seen new construction grind to a halt as the result of seemingly endless wrangling between environmental advocates and property owners anxious to erect homes on their undeveloped lots.

Last June, in response to a lawsuit filed by California Attorney General John K. Van de Kamp and a Tahoe environmental group, a federal district judge in San Francisco issued a preliminary injunction against further building in the Tahoe basin. A panel of judges heard an appeal on the order this May, and now those on both sides of the debate are anxiously awaiting the panel's decision, expected any day.

``Nothing is being built these days but frustration,'' says Stephen Teshara, a local radio reporter who has lived at the lake for 13 years. ``People come to Tahoe to enjoy the scenery, and they can't see past the hole in their wallet.''

At the heart of the dispute lies a quirk of cartography: The lake straddles the California-Nevada border. For as long as anyone can remember, the two states have disagreed on how development at the lake should proceed. Dependent on the revenue from casinos that line the lake's southern shore, Nevadans have traditionally favored development. But many Californians have maintained that unchecked growth would be disastrous to the lake's ecology.

About 17,000 parcels of land zoned for residential use are affected by the building ban. Many of these parcels -- situated on environmentally sensitive land -- are owned by retirees eager to build homes and relax in the lap of Lake Tahoe, a deep, brilliantly clear pool filling the depression between two ancient fault lines.

The lawsuit was filed last April against the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the lake's regional governing body. The suit alleges that the planning agency's five-year plan for future development at Tahoe inadequately protects the lake's fragile environment and that no construction should be allowed until the agency produces an acceptable plan.


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