The direct approach

How to solve an environmental problem: Buy it

At a 2007 protest against the Winnemucca Ranch/Spring Mountain development, Susan McNeall displayed a regional planning map to show the sprawl involved in approving a development 30 miles outside Reno.

At a 2007 protest against the Winnemucca Ranch/Spring Mountain development, Susan McNeall displayed a regional planning map to show the sprawl involved in approving a development 30 miles outside Reno.


Voters for Sensible Growth (VSG), a group that was formed in 2006 in response to plans for massive sprawl by Reno, Sparks and Washoe County, is proposing that the city of Reno buy Winnemucca Ranch and turn it into a “Nevada Heritage Ranch.”

On Dec. 3, 2008, the city approved the Winnemucca Ranch site for a 12,000-unit housing development called Spring Mountain. Because it is 30 miles north—about the distance from Reno to Carson City—it would generate substantial increase in gas consumption and other environmental costs that would hike the city’s carbon footprint, which is why some opponents of the development call it “Sprawl Ranch.” In addition, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe regards the project as a threat to its water.

Since city approval, there has been little progress toward actually beginning construction at the site, but the permitting remains active.

Erik Holland, president of VSG, originally proposed last year that the site be purchased privately, but the multi-million dollar cost made that impractical.

At that time, Holland said, “The developer has indicated a willingness to sell the ranch at fair market value, if there is a serious effort to raise the funds. Spring Mountain is the lead dog in a rush to sprawl to the north. If we can buy and preserve the ranch as a ‘Nevada Heritage Ranch,’ it will remove one of the biggest players in the rush to the north, and perhaps we can return to and follow a sensible regional plan.”

Now, he believes that public acquisition “is a way to end the controversy without necessarily having to go head to head with the power structure.”

He said that with the Nevada economy in deep recession, the prospects for construction are dim anyway.

“And the economy is part of that,” he said. “The economy is so bad, likely to be so bad for quite a while, that the folks that are motivated with dollar signs may be willing to kind of cash out their chips rather than going for the big, big kahuna that they were going for four years ago.”

Holland lists five things that would be saved by public acquisition of the site:

1) At least 27,000 auto trips per day on the Pyramid Highway.

2) $1.5 billion in freeway construction.

3) Habitat for sage grouse, mule deer, bighorn sheep and antelope.

4) An unknown amount in pipeline construction.

5) A regional plan that directs growth toward the urban core instead of out of the area.

“It’s partly a strategy born of just frustration with the unwillingness of three branches of government to listen to reason,” he said. “Even the courts. We think that if we could broker [an arrangement], or get on the ballot some kind of initiative instructing the city of Reno to take it out of the regional plan and quit trying to develop it, and to buy the ranch, preserve it, the developers get their money or a little bit more back, that would be a good thing.”

But the group is not making city government its only option.

“We’re going to try to work with groups like the Nature Conservancy and the BLM [U.S. Bureau of Land Management] and SNLMA [Southern Nevada Land Management Act] to put in motion the wheels through which other lands have been acquired. … I think the realistic way to do this is to find a way to get the ranch sold to the BLM.”

He believes the cost would be somewhere between $15 million and $50 million. “I know that they bought the ranch for $5 million in ’05.” He said the value of the development—once as high as $50 million—has declined because of the recession. But he has spoken with two people associated with the project, Arlo Stockham and Randy Venturacci. “Both of them have always said they would be willing to sell the ranch if the money could be raised to buy it.”

Holland seems to think that only the developers have dollar signs in their eyes. But labor unions anxious for construction jobs and local officials hungry for any signs of economic recovery could also be obstacles to a public acquisition.

But at least one city leader is OK with the notion.

“I think it’d be a great idea,” said Reno Mayor Bob Cashell. “That would keep it where it would not be developed.”

He thought that the members of the Reno City Council might be receptive to the idea.

He acknowledged that it would cost the area some construction jobs.

“As far as anything out there, we would lose some, but I don’t see anything being built in the next five years, anyway,” he said.

There remains the question of precedent. If the public buys out the Winnemucca Ranch development, what’s to keep other developers with permitting from lining up for their buyouts? What would stop other developers from putting together development proposals and getting approved with the hope of being bought out at a higher price for their land?

Holland said that ship has already sailed, both because of the city’s previous bad record of coziness with developers and also because of the city’s poor record on environmental issues. He says the city gets environmental awards from out-of-state groups unfamiliar with Reno’s full record.

“Politicians, developers are real politics players. The precedent’s already been set.”

And putting up some wind turbines does not negate the city’s approval of an energy-wasting housing development, he said.

“We might have a teaching moment here for the local government with all this green stuff,” he said. “Reno’s winning green awards left and right. It’s making my face green, because as long as the regional plan is the way it is, Reno’s not green. It’s brown.”

Holland said he was pleased by Cashell’s attitude toward the acquisition proposal.

“As a high school art teacher and a Chicago Cubs fan, I am an eternal optimist,” Holland said. “People, even politicians, can change and grow. Besides, this project doesn’t simply pencil out.”