Not all dreams of South Lake Tahoe founders realized 50 years after incorporation

One of the first things to be changed in the city was signs. This is Highway 50 near Park Avenue in 1964. Photo/Bill Kingman

One of the first things to change in the city was signs. This is Highway 50 near Park Avenue in 1964. Photo/Bill Kingman

Publisher’s note: This is one in a series of stories Lake Tahoe News will be running leading up to the 50th anniversary of South Lake Tahoe on Nov. 30.

City 50th Anniversary Logo v4By Laurel Ames

Despite the grumbling by South Tahoe residents about the county seat located in Placerville, 60 miles away, and the difficulty of getting to El Dorado Board of Supervisors meetings, emotions did not coalesce about various irritations until it was revealed that El Dorado County was largely financing the West Slope county government with funds they collected in the Tahoe basin.

Those funds were primarily the locals’ property taxes, and the taxes and fees paid by the developers of new subdivisions that were exploding around the communities. The new subdivision projects were clear-cutting trees, gouging out flat home sites, and installing sub-par roads, with only a thin layer of asphalt. Because the decisions about how large, how many and where the subdivisions would be built and what level of engineering they needed were made in Placerville, they received only a very cursory review.

In addition, developers were throwing up poorly-designed shoddily-built buildings on Highway 50, damaging or filling wetlands and shoving streams into ditches, plus building on the beaches and had already dredged the Upper Truckee Marsh for the Tahoe Keys – all of it approved by the county Board of Supervisors.

But the worst evidence of our powerlessness was the indefensible proliferation of ugly signs along the highway, each competing to be larger and more gaudy in color, with a fast increase in every kind of lighting, moving lights blinking, flashing and bursting across the signs.


 “We’ve become incorporated five years too late.” — Brad Murphy, first mayor of South Lake Tahoe, the Tahoe Daily Tribune reported Dec. 1, 1965. But he proclaimed the city would now take leadership in protecting the lake’s beauty. 


After incorporation, everyone agreed that the sight down the highway at the state line was a horrible vision of our new city. The San Francisco Chronicle described it as “The Market Street of the Sierra.”

With the feeling that we were being ripped off, being surrounded by poor standards of building, by the county’s failure to recognize the special Tahoe environment and the shoddy level of county-provided public services, including poor snowplowing service, slow sheriff response times, and little road repair, plus the failure to even acknowledge the need for a community vision for the South Shore area that recognized the importance of the lake for our community, people began to talk about creating their own local government.

A small core group came together to build a strong organization of dissatisfied residents to figure out how to get ourselves our own locally elected officials, keep our taxes in the basin and under our control, and assure that the former charm of our mountain town was restored, while our lake was protected. Creating a new city was the solution, and incorporation was the legal process. Volunteers soon joined in for the numerous tasks – from typing stencils for the mimeograph machine to organizing fundraisers and everything else in between.

That group was made up of Betty and Tom Mitchell, the Bijou Elementary School principal; Mary and Vaughn Burlingham, a developer; and myself and Wink Ames, an insurance broker and my husband at the time.


“The people of Lake Tahoe’s South Shore formally have taken steps to control and preserve the natural beauty of this area. The overwhelming vote for incorporation proves the people do care what happens to the lake. We now have local government control and do not have to rely on those from other areas to take care of our needs.” –– Wink Ames


With the help of many others, we researched local government law and faced the problems of attaining property owner signatures when 67 percent of the lot and cabin owners were not residents, all in an era when there were no computers, no faxes and no copy machines. It was plain hard work after buying the property owner rolls from the county assessor to sort the thousands of names and addresses by hand (first, we cut the county records into individual strips by name and address and then laid them out, one by one, in a very primitive sorting system) until we could write (again by hand) addresses on envelopes, paste on stamps and mail requests for a signature to residents and out-of-town property owners so we could form our own town.

Betty Mitchell remembered the numerous “addressing parties” that locals came to in order to help the effort. And then the county, which was watching us attack their golden egg, threw up a big hurdle – they interpreted the state law on signatures required for incorporation to be every signature on a property deed. We were dumbfounded, as the county required only one signature for many actions, including paying property taxes. We were looking at properties that individually were owned by up to 18 people. The decree by the county set us back, until a local lawyer volunteered to help. We sued the County (Ames vs. Board of Supervisors) and a judge agreed with us – only one signature per parcel.

Following two years of work by volunteers, our efforts paid off in a wildly successful election, and the city of South Lake Tahoe was born on Nov. 16, 1965 — the date of the vote.

El Dorado County officials  approved development on the South Shore without regard to the environment. Photo/LTN file

El Dorado County approved development on the South Shore without regard to the environment. Photo/LTN file

How the city has shifted

This past few weeks Betty Mitchell, Wink Ames and I have looked back, reminisced, and thought about what the city was in the beginning, and what it is now. Fifty years is a long time, but our memories came together over highlights and details.

By far the most significant and we hope long-lasting change was from the challenge to the city from the myriad ugly, ugly signs and billboards. It wasn’t easy, and Mitchell remembers her husband, who had been appointed to the first Planning Commission, was irate about a large Harrah’s sign stuck in the ground on property in California next to the highway. That sign, among others of the most gross, was targeted for removal in the first phase of cleaning up the signs. But Harrah’s put pressure on a city councilman, the city manager put pressure on Tom Mitchell, who stood his ground, but the other planning commissioners caved and gave Harrah’s 14 years to remove the sign.

Today, all those signs are gone, much of the gaudiness has gone away, and, except on the Nevada side, signs are now classier, muted from the wild abandonment of the 1960s, but still subject to the whims and senses of the city Planning Commission, as those who read the city agendas can see. The city’s early vision of signs that were not obtrusive was on the road to attainment until this past summer when the city got two new very large very bright-colored lighted signs – Auto Zone orange and BevMo red. Oops. Is this the vision for the city’s future?

The other great success we remembered was the city action to kill the proposed freeway from Meyers to Harrah’s parking lot at Stateline. The route of the four-lane freeway was through every meadow in town, as it further rerouted the Upper Truckee River along the airport, and curved toward Stateline across the river and ran parallel to Barbara Street. Just past the north end of the airport, in the middle of that meadow, a large freeway flyover, with off ramps and on ramps to the flyover to connect to another freeway that would replace Highway 89 up the West Shore. That 89 freeway right-of-way can still be seen in the form of the large lagoon on the town side of Venice Drive in the Tahoe Keys. The roadways would cover up all of the meadow at the intersection of 50 and 89. Another place to see the old proposed freeway is the snow storage yard for Caltrans at the end of Sierra Boulevard.

The freeway then headed toward Stateline across Trout Creek meadow, Bijou Creek meadow, across the drainage above Pioneer Trail, across Ski Run, up the hill, through the houses and down to the Harrah’s parking lot. Caltrans had spent years buying up right-of-way, businesses and houses, as they advanced their plans.

The new City Council got wind of the enormity of the road and how it would affect the town, and called Caltrans (at that time the Department of Highways) to meet with the community at a meeting in the new high school auditorium – and the city turned out. The Caltrans engineers were there with their presentation, and the freeway opponents brought in experts and organized local speakers. South Tahoe was passionately opposed to the freeway.

The highlight of the event was when the head Caltrans engineer was asked if they had prepared mock-ups (models) of the freeway, and he said “no”. But Bill Ledbetter, CEO of Harveys, had managed to obtain a full-color picture of the mock-up of the exit into Harrah’s parking lot, had made 400 8 x 10 color glossies and had them handed out to the audience as the question was being asked. The Caltrans rep slunk back to his seat and the City Council took up the issue of signing an agreement with Caltrans to proceed with the project. The vote was 4-1 against.

When the city went off the rails

Several years later, a different group was formed by Ed McCarthy (later the founder of the Council for Logic and mentor of Terry Trupp, later the mayor of the city who was arrested for drug dealing) that announced that the freeway was desperately needed and campaigned for a vote of the people to approve the freeway. His ads said, in full caps, “THE STATE OF CALIF WILL BUILD AND PAY FOR ANY KIND OF ROAD WE WANT.” By that time the time-share developers were building time-shares and they signed up their new owners to support a new parkway. People voted for it, even though “parkway” was just a nice name for a freeway. But it was too late, and a combination of Caltrans harboring a grudge against the city, and the later advent of CEQA and new environmental rules that would have prevented the super-sized road in the wet meadows, ended the idea of splitting the city into two sides and destroying parts of large wetlands of the largest river in the Tahoe basin.

While later the city hungered for the two loop roads at the state line, one above and one to connect to the road near the Edgewood golf course, and even today wants a larger loop road above the existing loop road, it has not attempted to reignite any effort to build a freeway through the city’s meadows. The early city had its head on straight, and the town held a vision of protecting the meadows. Wink Ames noted that he ran for the second City Council on a platform to protect the environment and the communities, and that local control would be brought to us by thoughtful and responsible representatives. Ames got the most votes.

At the beginning, the new city quickly hired a land use planner, and citizens got to work in a yearlong process called 14,000 Planners. As Ames remembers, the planner told the groups that they could have any kind of community it wanted, provided they could articulate and agree on a picture of what that vision was. They met for a year and turned out the city’s first General Plan, which was aimed at creating a true mountain village style community, protecting the remaining open spaces, limiting sizes of building to be compatible with the small communities of Stateline in California, Bijou, Al Tahoe and Tahoe Valley. And protecting the large pine trees for their significant role along the highway for the scenic values of the communities was important to the residents.

“I really believed it would work,” Ames said of the 14,000 Planners plan. “But the vision is gone. It doesn’t look any better now.”

Mitchell noted that the community wanted local control and they thought that, in addition to snowplowing that was better than the hit-or-miss of the county, road repairs and a city police department, they would see their town start to look better. But it never happened.

BevMo's sign lacks a mountain feel. Photo/LTN

BevMo’s sign lacks a mountain feel. Photo/LTN

My thought is the city lost its vision of being a series of mountain villages and has not replaced that with a cohesive new vision, as demonstrated by the new BevMo and Auto Zone. The Chateau at Stateline is seen as an improvement over the Hole in the Ground (brought to us by city approval) but lacking an architecturally pleasing exterior reminding us all that when the beautiful Outdoorsman building was remodeled into a drug store, the best building South Shore ever had was lost forever.

And worst of all, the water at the lake’s edge in the summer, which was astoundingly clear in 1965, is now lost to streaming algae, milfoil mats and a shoreline that is no longer the “pristine purity and crystal clarity” that the politicians used to brag about in 1965. Instead, the city, when faced with state and federal rules to protect the lake, took umbrage at the concept that the locals would be stewards, and led the fight against a regional agency, fought the legislation that required new development rules, and did not accept fiscal responsibility for protecting the lake – garnering the city its moniker in out-of basin government offices as “welfare queens” in that the city wanted the state and feds to pay for protecting the lake, but to reap the benefits from living at Tahoe.

Today, as you drive down Highway 50, try to imagine the highway lined with tall pine trees, with the Y a real Y with a hundred old Ponderosa pines in the center – an area that is now all pavement. Fifty years from now, will the remnants of tall pine trees still exist, or will the highway run past a solid wall of 42-foot tall buildings, side by side?

The city of South Lake Tahoe can try again for a new vision for the town and embrace protecting the meadows, the lake, and the big trees, emphasizing the natural values of the surroundings in their decisions.

Based on the last 50 years, it looks like a long shot.

Laurel Ames was one of the key players in getting South Lake Tahoe to incorporate. She still lives in the city.


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Comments (13)
  1. Old Long Skiis says - Posted: March 30, 2015

    Laurel Ames. Excellent! I was young at the time of the formation of the city but you got it all right. My Dad and I would be driving around doing errands and stop at another motel when we were done with our chores ,where he knew the owner, so he could catch up on things. Heard lots of talk about the idea for becoming a city. Some in favor, some not. A very interesting time!
    There have been some mistakes made along the way but we have also had some sucsess as of late.
    Take care and glad your still living here.
    Old Long Skiis.aka Bob Rockwell

  2. Destruction says - Posted: March 30, 2015

    The USFS is destroying the sunset reach next to the airport and calling it restoration. That project is the next huge environmental catastrophe in Tahoe. So sad

  3. David Kurtzman says - Posted: March 30, 2015

    Does anyone remember how the city boundary lines were determined and why areas such as Montgomery Estates, etc. we’re not included?

  4. Dogula says - Posted: March 30, 2015

    So instead of one set of crooked politicians, you elected to have two. And then added all those levels of Federal graft and corruption on top of it all.
    Good job.

  5. Old Long Skiis says - Posted: March 30, 2015

    David Kurtzman, I had a map from when the city first started showing the boundaries. It was strange, as the lines were excluding some areas like Heavenly Valley and the upper part of Black Bart ave. Sadlly I have’nt seen that old map in years. Maybe its around here somewhere.
    I would guess it was “money and influence” that drew the boundry lines for the city of South Lake Tahoe.
    Glad you’re still living in these parts for so many years David!
    Old Long Skiis

  6. Kay Henderson says - Posted: March 30, 2015

    Very interesting look back at the issues that led you to the massive amount of work it took to form a city. Thanks for sharing.

  7. local says - Posted: March 30, 2015

    I thought the City incorporated to control Police, fire and snow removal?

  8. Del Laine says - Posted: March 30, 2015

    Great article, Laurie. Very factual to anyone who took part in the incorporation effort and you are also remembered as the strategist who kept us focused. Thanks to you, Betty and Wink for bringing it all back!

  9. Kenny (Tahoe Skibum) Curtzwiler says - Posted: March 30, 2015

    David, the boundary lines were determined by the original council and included as Exhibit A June 13, 1966 as part of the BOS adoption of the Resolution No. 286-65 dated Nov 15, 1965 that was filed with the SEc of State (Ca) on Nov 30, 1965. I do not know why there is a date difference but that is what is on the documents. To everyone else that comments here, former and current-Yes I do have the copies of the documents and do not make this stuff up.

  10. Garry Bowen says - Posted: March 30, 2015

    Great review by Laurel, although she’s incorrect about the incorporation date actually a week earlier November 9th (instead of the 16th – the ‘Trib’ account was dated the 10th)

    She may be right on the issue of the City’s falling off- track, as that lack of a cohesive vision still plagues a place which is “gun-shy” about anything that costs somebody money – as they’ve never figured out how a vision might secure the citizenry enough to attract more entrepreneurial skills, other than the ‘namesakes’ (Bill & Harvey) that did rather well in creating the local economy – too many replicated gas stations (50 + !?), restaurants, and motels, now mostly gone. . .

    Harrah could fill up most of those motels with the entertainment draw, but alas, that was in an era where the industry didn’t export itself everywhere else. . .and now has driven itself into the ground. . .

    Thanks to Laurel for providing lots of the “nuts & bolts”, as I was just a ‘young pup’ when I started at Harrah’s at the ripe age of 15 1/2 as a bus boy in Harrah’s Lake Club (across the street on the corner), leaving 10 years later in Public Relations. . .that’s not a bad “career”path”, though, for a teenager thru early 20’s to have in place like Lake Tahoe.

    I suppose that creates my bias about the Lake’s potential & possibilities, as it can be so much more than it is. . .even now. . . I lived through an era of extreme business, that now can be much more nuanced. . .

  11. David Kurtzman says - Posted: March 30, 2015

    Thanks, Kenny. Still curious as to the negotiating that resulted in the current boundaries.

  12. Parker says - Posted: March 30, 2015

    I too am curious Dave & Kenny about the back story, or negotiations, that established what areas would be part of the Incorporated City, and what wouldn’t.

  13. Kenny (Tahoe Skibum) Curtzwiler says - Posted: March 31, 2015

    Best I can figure is it was the county BOS that made the decision. There was a corporation started called “CITY OF SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, CALIFORNIA, MUNICIPAL FACILIITIES CORPORATION” The owners were: Linne E. Nelson, Roger L. Scott and Dennis D Maas. They built the govt facilities within the boundries that the BOS gave them. The BOS at the time certified the election (there were 19 running) and approved the council of the top 5 voters. There were a total of 11,955 votes cast for council. For incorporation: 2011 for and 613 against. To name the city SOUTH LAKE TAHOE 1290 votes and 1172 to name it LAKE TAHOE. You would probably have to contact all 19 guys running for the first council to get an idea of what happened.