Verdi land grab
A court case will decide Reno’s “manifest destiny” as Verdi residents try to hang on to their rural lifestyle
Joe Gavica’s family has lived in Verdi for three generations. His 8.5-acre property lies in a meadow along the Union Pacific main line just north of Interstate 80. Aside from the occasional train, Gavica enjoys the peace and tranquility associated with his rural lifestyle. He also likes watching the wildlife feed off his land.
“Most people have to get away to experience this,” Gavica said. “I have all of this at home.”
Gavica is one of many Verdi residents concerned with the development plans of their neighbors—a collective of nine property owners, including Quilici Ranch and Boomtown Hotel-Casino—who want to be annexed into the city of Reno. The controversy exacerbates a territorial dispute between Reno and Washoe County and calls into question the viability of the Truckee Meadows Regional Plan, an agreement state lawmakers created a decade ago that sets guidelines for local governments on development density and annexations.
Last month, the Reno City Council voted 5-2—councilwomen Jessica Sferrazza-Hogan and Toni Harsh opposed—to annex 3,015 acres of property, including Boomtown, on both sides of I-80 from Reno’s current city limits. The annexation would bring the city’s boundary to the California-Nevada state line.
In late July, Washoe County filed a lawsuit declaring that the city’s action is illegal and violates the regional plan, because the area is not in the city’s sphere of influence—that is, within the boundaries that designate land the city can annex once municipal services become available. The regional plan, the county argued, offers protection to areas like Verdi that are classified as suburban.
The county’s position is supported by a favorable opinion from the attorney general. A ruling is expected in September. Reno’s own Northwest Neighborhood Advisory Board, which would have jurisdiction over the area if annexed, opposes the city’s move.
Gavica worries that the road to his home would be used as an access road for the new development, and he anticipates a never-ending convoy of construction vehicles going back and forth near his property.
“This is a rural area,” he said. “This is not Vegas, but it’s coming to it. We don’t need business parks and shopping centers in Verdi.”
Why ask to be part of the city of Reno? Development-minded property owners are frustrated by the county’s zoning restrictions designating the land as “suburban.” If that designation changed to “urban,” they’d be able to build three times as many residential units, up to a maximum of 3,888 homes.
“We have had our private property rights taken away from us for nearly 10 years,” Quilici family member Ed Graham told the Reno City Council last month.
Though the annexation didn’t grant additional development rights to property owners, these rights can be applied for through the city. Any proposal that would have regional significance would still be required to go through the Regional Planning Agency for approval.
The area is contiguous to city limits, so property owners do have a legal right to ask to be part of Reno, the city contends. And surely the idea of more taxable property and another large casino to add to the redevelopment coffers is amenable to the Reno City Council.
But if the city is successful in court and the property owners are allowed to carry through with their development plans, Gavica said he worries about the impacts to his land and the Verdi Township. Not only would the annexation split the community in two, he said, the incorporation of municipal services would eliminate the Verdi Volunteer Fire Department. Gavica, a Verdi volunteer, explained that the fire department is a source of community pride.
“It would be devastating to the community,” he said.
Also unresolved is the question of who will pay for a sewer line from Mogul into Verdi. When the council voted to annex the Verdi property, it also approved a $550,000 contract with Summit Engineering to build the Verdi-Lawton Sewer Interceptor, paid for by the city’s general fund. The total cost of the project is slated at nearly $9 million. The county had applied for a $1.5 million rural grant to pay for the first phase of the project. If the annexation takes place, those federal funds might be jeopardized, because the grant is only earmarked for rural communities.
In a June 25 letter to the Reno City Council, County Commission Chair Jim Shaw relayed these concerns.
“What sense does it make to place the burden on the city ratepayer for an interceptor that only benefits a few property owners when federal funding is available and ready to be applied?” Shaw wrote.
City officials have indicated that they have the necessary financing to actually do the project. The city has budgeted $8 million for interceptor improvements this year.
As a condition of the county commissioners’ approval of Boomtown’s expansion five years ago, the casino agreed to foot the largest portion of the first phase of the project, because the casino stands to benefit the most from the project.
Both county and city officials believe the sewer line is necessary to protect pollutants from entering the Truckee River. But Gavica, who uses a septic tank, said the city approving the sewer project before the annexation issue is resolved is putting the cart before the horse.
More than anything, some Verdi residents are frustrated that they do not have any say in the annexation."[The Reno City Council] is making decisions that are affecting our lives, and we didn’t even put them into office,” Gavica said. “The only positive is that we would be able to vote them out of office.”
Gavica said he believes that the agreement between the property owners, developers and the city is a result of backroom politics.
“There are a lot of palms being greased,” he said.
Campaign disclosure reports show the Reno City Council members who voted in favor of the annexation received contributions from Boomtown and developers, while Harsh and Sferrazza-Hogan, the dissenting votes, didn’t.
Besides Verdi, several recent territorial battles have occured between the city and county, including the annexation of Damonte Ranch and the attempted annexation of Ballardini Ranch last year. In the latter case, developers who were frustrated by county restrictions of building on open space in the Southwest Truckee Meadows asked the city to annex the property. The proposal failed to pass the Regional Planning Governing Board.
City officials contend the county’s approval of development in unincorporated areas and funding of municipal services will exacerbate a fiscal inequity between the two local governments.
Others are worried that if the Verdi annexation is approved, a dangerous precedent will be set in terms of changes to the regional plan, with developers jumping jurisdictions until they get approval from local authorities. The state’s narrow tax base structure, they say, seems designed to pit local governments against each other in a constant battle for sources of revenue.
Assemblywoman Vivian Freeman, D-Reno, who has introduced bills in recent years to address regional planning, said that lawmakers would ultimately have to settle the issue.
“The regional plan is being abused so often by all of the amendments being added to it, and we might have to clarify the statute,” Freeman said.
As for Gavica and his family, their goal is to protect a rural lifestyle that may be facing extinction.
“We just want to be left alone," he said.