A presentation on the U.S. 50 South Shore Community Revitalization project Tuesday revealed a reality that many already knew: the community remains divided on the issue.

Decades of work, scores of meetings, debate, a ballot initiative and ensuing lawsuit have not lessened the divide when it comes to the controversial highway realignment and redevelopment project.

Now, South Lake Tahoe city officials are hoping increased engagement with residents can further shape the project and help coalesce support for it.

"This is the start," City Manager Frank Rush said Tuesday.

That engagement effort gets underway in earnest Thursday, March 14, at a meeting billed as a "community discussion." The meeting, which will take place at the South Lake Tahoe Senior Center at 3050 Lake Tahoe Blvd., will run from 5-8 p.m.

According to the agenda, the meeting will start with an "open house" format for 30 minutes before a 15-minute presentation by Tahoe Regional Planning Agency's John Hester.

A two-hour allotment for community dialogue and discussion will follow.

"We are getting ready to embark on significant planning efforts for this project," Rush said in a press release. "It's going to be an important project for our community, and we want the public to be engaged. This meeting will be the first of many opportunities for public input. At the end of the day, we want to all work together to build a successful project for South Lake Tahoe."

If the "dialogue" resembles public comment at Tuesday's council meeting, council will likely be asked why they are not letting residents vote on the project.

"It's just a perception problem," Laurel Ames said of the city's approach to the project thus far — a remark that touched off some applause from audience members.

Ames was one of a handful or residents who spearheaded a 2016 ballot measure that effectively required any city decisions on the project to be put to a vote of the people. The measure was struck down in court and is no longer valid (read more about the most recent court decision on Page 10).

Still, supporters of the 2016 measure say its passage by nearly 60 percent is a clear indication the South Lake Tahoe residents want a say in the matter, regardless of the court outcome.

"The let people decide group is still waiting to have an election so we can tell you how we really feel since we haven't been asked yet," Ames concluded.

She was not the only one to advocate that position.

"Put it on the ballot and let us vote on it," South Lake Tahoe resident John Messina said.

Several speakers Tuesday voiced their support for the overall project.

"This is a public safety issue," South Shore resident Erica Eng said in support of the project.

Divide on council?

The same split in the community is reflected, to a degree, on City Council.

Acknowledging her vocal opposition in the past, Councilor Tamara Wallace said she could buy into the project if it reflects the will of the people.

"I'm all for a high tide raising all ships in a community and if we can do that in our community and get all of the problems that I see with this project solved, I'm fully bought in," Wallace said.

"But there are some real problems with this project and we need to listen to our community …"

If that doesn't happen, Wallace said she would help bring another ballot measure forward — presumably one that would stand up stronger to a legal challenge.

Bruce Grego, a local attorney and former member of council who authored the 2016 ballot measure that was ultimately struck down by the court, told the Tribune that putting another ballot measure forward is a real possibility, depending on how council proceeds.

Council's other three members present for Tuesday's discussion — Councilor Jason Collin, a vocal proponent of the project, recused himself from the discussion because he said he owned property in the project area — have expressed support for building more buy in.

In the process of that discussion, though, a heated moment broke out when Mayor Brooke Laine interjected during Councilor Cody Bass' remarks in an attempt to provide guidance.

Bass became visibly frustrated at being what he said was interrupted. Laine ultimately called for a 10-minute recess, which appeared to be effective in smoothing over the situation.

"My ultimate goal it to get everybody around the table and get this to a project that our community believes in, that we can buy into as a whole so that we quit the fighting and we try to come together and do what's best for the community," Bass later explained.

That is, in essence, what city leadership hopes to accomplish with meetings going forward.

In a moment of clarity, Tahoe Transportation District Director Carl Hasty explained there will be plenty more opportunities for engagement.

While much was made about the approval from the TRPA Governing Board in 2018, the reality is the project is only about 30 percent complete.

"There is a lot more work to be done."