Homeowners feel left out of the process that could run elderly residents and low-income families out of their homes

Rewana Farms resident Jackie Decker points out the plane landing practically in her backyard.

Rewana Farms resident Jackie Decker points out the plane landing practically in her backyard.

Photo By David Robert

English-speaking officials are always talking about airport expansion and where the Moana Lane Extension is going to be. But a homeowner in the Neil Road area is worried that his Spanish-speaking neighbors can’t follow what’s going on—let alone participate in the political system that might leave them homeless.

“They’re taking advantage of us people in the area,” Enrique Torres says. Torres lives with his wife and four children in a two-bedroom home that he purchased for $85,000. “I ask a lot of my neighbors, and none of them know about this. Some of them are going to have to move out.”

Last month, the Reno City Council approved abandoning several streets in the Southeast Reno Rewana Farms neighborhood and granted changes in the area’s zoning to allow for airport operations.

The street abandonments will allow the Reno-Tahoe International Airport to fence in property, located between its southwest quadrant and east of Neil Road, that it has acquired through federal noise abatement funds.

Rewana Farms property owners see the street abandonments as a preliminary step to develop the area into an air cargo facility. They predict property values falling as traffic—vehicles driving from Moana Lane to East Peckham by way of Neil Road—is rerouted into their neighborhood.

Airport officials and the city staff have decided to mitigate traffic by a realignment of the Moana Lane Extension (MLE)—extending the street from its current Neil Road terminus to Longley Lane and eventually South McCarran.

Torres isn’t sure what this means for his family. But, with the planned MLE now about 500 feet closer to Neil Road, homes will end up sandwiched into a noisy low-income rectangle between what will be two major roadways.

“With the situation now, [the Moana Lane Extension] will either come through the front of my house or through the back,” Torres says. “We were thinking of adding another room, but now we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

When deciding to approve the abandonments, Mayor Jeff Griffin and other council members said they were only concerned with immediate effects of closing down those streets, rather than the issue of future development of a cargo site.

“They’re putting the cart before the horse,” says Jackie Decker, a 40-year resident of the neighborhood.

A cargo facility could be constructed long before the first phase of the MLE would be completed in 2005. Decker says the MLE’s realignment would require more property to be acquired. That would cost more taxpayer money.

The money is not what worries Torres the most. He’s more worried about neighbors who’ll be moving out of the homes being acquired.

“They haven’t figured out what they are going to do with these people,” Torres says. “People have been renting in this area for so long. A lot of these people have very bad credit. To move [into a new place], they check your everything.”

To add insult to injury, critics charge airport officials with using federal noise abatement funds to purchase the property. The officials’ strategy of abandoning the street first and later developing the cargo facility takes advantage of a legal loophole. Decker points to an August memo between airport officials and trustees suggesting this strategy because of a law prohibiting the airport from using federal noise abatement funds to purchase roads for access to the cargo facility.

“I think Ms. Decker has every right to be suspicious of the process we are looking at there,” Reno City Councilwoman Jessica Sferrazza-Hogan says. Sferrazza-Hogan was the only council member who voted against the abandonment.

For Decker, the move represented the latest battle in six years of the airport’s continued expansion into her neighborhood—a former dairy farm. Ever since the neighborhood’s zoning began changing from residential to commercial and industrial uses, the airport has been buying up property and has forced the removal of homeowners.

“It has been a conspiracy since [the city] adopted the Neil Road Neighborhood Plan back in ‘80s,” she said. “The airport has targeted an elderly neighborhood which has had little or no resources to fight them.”

Airport officials say the proposed cargo development will occur even though the U.S. Postal Service announced in January that it would not relocate its mail-sorting hub to Reno. Air cargo is expected to grow 37 percent by the year 2005, officials say. The Federal Aviation Administration forecasts a 6.4 percent annual growth in world air cargo over the next 10 years.

Airport spokesman Adam Mayberry says that there have been discussions with FedEx and other aviation developers to use the site, but no plans have been set. The airport has tried to strike a balance between the quality of life of the community and maintaining a strong economy with all of the tourism challenges facing the region, he says.

Mayberry adds that cargo has already grown at the airport—citing a 7.4 percent increase last year.

“We are not building [the cargo facility] so they will come. We are doing it so we can accommodate them,” he says.

While the airport seems to be doing more cargo business, passenger flights continue to drop. According to airport authority statistics, about 500,000 fewer passengers traveled in and out of the Reno airport each of the last two years. Increasing cargo flights helps maintain low landing fees for passenger flights, Mayberry says.

Does Mayberry think the airport should have handled some of the land acquisitions differently?

“There are some regrets,” Mayberry says. “Some of the ways could have been handled better.”

A recent attempt by the airport to relocate the U.S. Postal Service western sorting hub to Reno was nixed due to a business decision of the mail carrier, airport officials insist. However, the announcement came just weeks after the Reno City Council narrowly voted to demand a full environmental impact statement for the hub. Some believe all of the local governments demanding airport trustees to ask for the more scrutinized environmental review as the deciding factor. If the airport’s board of trustees were an independent entity, this may not have been an issue.

State legislation proposed by state senators Bill Raggio, R-Reno, and Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, could restructure the Airport Authority’s board of trustees, restricting local government’s influence on the airport board. The rationale? Too much “micromanagement” by local government. They say that the appointed board should have the independence to make business decisions.

Rewana Farms resident Decker thinks the idea of an independent board is absurd and fears the legislation will make the airport board even less responsive. Decker was one of five finalists the County Commission considered Tuesday to fill a vacancy on the airport board, but she was not appointed.

Mayberry says the USPS hub was a more controversial idea for residents in the Truckee Meadows because of the anticipated nighttime flights and the type of planes. He said much of the tension has been defused as the airport has encouraged involvement of the public in airport noise advisory boards.

“Our role is to balance the needs of the quality of life of the community with the economic needs of the community," he says.