The growth channel

Proposed changes to the Truckee Meadows Regional Plan have some residents nervous about their rural lifestyles

He spent three years living just blocks away from downtown Reno. Then Neal Cobb moved to a part of the valley that’s peaceful—if only he and others can keep it that way.

He spent three years living just blocks away from downtown Reno. Then Neal Cobb moved to a part of the valley that’s peaceful—if only he and others can keep it that way.

Photo By David Robert

Four years ago, Neal Cobb moved out to Golden Valley to get away from the urban trappings of the West University neighborhood in Reno where he’d lived for more than three decades. In his new home, he has a clear view of the stars at night and a place for his livestock to graze. Most of all, Cobb said, he enjoys the peace after years of living near one of the university’s biggest fraternity party houses.

It’s quiet out in Golden Valley. Cobb, president of the Golden Valley Homeowners Association, wants to keep it that way. But he fears that may mean a battle.

A proposed update of the Truckee Meadows Regional Plan has exacerbated tensions between city and county governments, whose officials each have proposed differing means of controlling growth.

In one proposed change scenario, Reno seeks to extend its sphere of influence as far north as Cold Springs (that would include Cobb’s neighborhood), west to the California-Nevada state line and south to Pleasant Valley along U.S. Highway 395. Critics fear this could upset the balance of power—in effect, “gutting” the regional plan.

With the extension of Reno’s influence, Cobb worries, could come pesky urban amenities such as street lights, sidewalks, restrictions on the number of animals he can have and his biggest fear—changes in zoning that would alter the feel of his neighborhood.

“I really resent the city of Reno taking away my freedom of choice,” he said.

A common cause
The regional plan was created a decade ago by the Nevada Legislature as a way to unify the visions of Washoe County and the cities of Sparks and Reno. The plan governs land use, plots infrastructure, regulates services and defines the process of city annexations. Now the Truckee Meadows Regional Planning Agency, under the direction of representatives of all three governments, is updating the regional plan with an eye to guiding growth.

Reno and Sparks are asking for the extension of their spheres of influence in areas along major transportation corridors where major industrial and commercial development is expected to occur.

Once land is in a city’s sphere of influence, actual annexation of that land is a much simpler process. And that’s the problem. To some, annexation to the city of Reno is about as welcome as an audit from the IRS.

That’s why concerned citizens living in outlying areas of the Truckee Meadows, including Cobb, have banded together to form Connected Communities. Group spokesman Jim Covert said the group’s members share a desire to preserve their quality of life.

“The reason why we got together is that we discovered we had similar interests and the concern that our lifestyle was being threatened,” he said. “Up until the current management of Reno, we hadn’t felt threatened.”

Connected Communities does intend to challenge development, Covert said. But rather than be seen as reactionary folks who balk at every new subdivision, the group hopes to work with developers in finding proactive solutions during the planning process.

Covert and others say they believe that the city of Reno is using the regional plan update to increase its tax base. The city is undertaking several costly downtown projects, Covert said, while it is in poor fiscal condition. To solve this, Covert theorized, the city can either raise property taxes on its own citizens—something that could be political suicide—or increase its current tax base.

“I think [Reno] bit off more than it can chew, and now it is choking,” he said. “I’m concerned [the city] is trying to use this as a tax [on outlying area residents].”

One region, one vision
Reno officials say that the proposed regional plan changes would counter the county’s longstanding policy of approving intense development in the outlying areas without a funding mechanism to pay for the services.

The city’s recommendation to increase its sphere of influence shows regional leadership, said John Hester, director of Reno’s Community Development department.

The city is sensitive to unincorporated residents’ concerns, Hester insisted. Reno is interested only in annexing areas of commercial and industrial development. In Hester’s view, the Citizen Connections group is a vocal minority. It’s misinformed about the city’s goals and does not represent most residents.

“The majority of people don’t care if they live in the city or county as long as they don’t have to pay increased taxes and do receive good services,” Hester said. He added that the city could deliver municipal services cheaper.

Also, the reports that Reno is broke are greatly exaggerated, city officials contend. The city is expected to balance this year’s budget with a 4 percent surplus and $5.2 million in contingencies.

“These two items reflect the responsible fiscal practices of Reno during the good economic years and prepare us for the times ahead, which are predicted to be more challenging,” city spokesman Chris Good said.

One region, another vision
While county officials were hesitant to admit their approval of intense development in the past, their focus now is correcting a fiscal inequity problem. They contend Reno’s aggressive annexation policy is the source of urban sprawl these days. One county planner even pointed out that Hester, before coming to the city, was the director of community development for Washoe County and had a big role in approving those unincorporated developments.

County officials support a ballot question as a solution to answer questions of fiscal equity and address who pays for services used by residents. If approved, unincorporated residents would see a raise in their property taxes for municipal services, while taxes would decrease for city residents.

“The county supports solutions that promote equity among the region’s taxpayers,” said county spokesman Bob Harmon. “Solutions should be revenue neutral and should not cause or result in a windfall of new resources to any jurisdiction.”

A workable solution
At the center of the turf war debate is Regional Planning Agency Director Emily Braswell, who is trying to steer the three local governments toward agreement. Most agree, she said, with the proposed annexation of transport corridors in the updated plan. That’s needed so the region can accommodate expanded transit systems.

“The debate is where you draw the lines,” she said.

Braswell said her agency would like the regional plan to explore where development should occur. If Reno’s proposal were accepted, it wouldn’t gut the regional plan.

“It will just change the way we do things," she said.