John Seelmeyer

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January 21, 2013
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The checkerboard: A 140-year sales job

David Larson finds himself with a job that's bedeviled folks in the real estate business for nearly 140 years finding buyers for thousands of acres of Nevada land whose sale was intended to partially finance construction of the first transcontinental railroad.

Larson, a longtime real estate broker in Reno, is looking for buyers for about 480,000 acres in parcels that stretch from Wells near the eastern border of Nevada to Wadsworth, a couple of miles west of Fernley.

The property it's in 913 separate parcels ranges from potential industrial and residential properties near the booming mining communities of Winnemucca, Battle Mountain and Carlin to remote square miles of land far distant from the nearest roads.

All told, it amounts to about 12 percent of all the privately owned land in Nevada.

That's not to mention about 1 million acres of mineral rights within 20 miles north and south of Interstate 80, the Main Street of Nevada's gold- and silver-mining industry. Those properties are overseen by New Nevada Resources, a sister company.

Larson, brought on by New Nevada Lands President Don Pattalock to market the widespread land holdings about six months ago, at times feels overwhelmed by the sheer size of the job.

"There's more land than you could see in a year," he says. "Your mind gets fogged pretty quickly."

Instead, he took an old-fashioned approach: He unfolded a 42-by-30-inch paper map of the properties across a conference table at his office at Thomas Clark Real Estate, took out an orange crayon and began drawing circles around groups of properties that might have similar markets.

Recently announced plans by Tico Construction of Reno for a residential and retail development near Carlin, for instance, might draw similar interest to four or five square miles of land that New Nevada Lands owns near the Elko County community.

Land along Interstate 80 might be developed for trucking centers, recreational vehicle parks or hotels.

Larson has been talking with the mining companies of northeast Nevada about their needs and finding parcels that might solve their problems.

And those dozens of square miles of land in the nearly trackless mountains west of Winnemucca or southeast of Lovelock?

"Some of this land is absolutely stunning," says Larson. He pauses a second. "But very difficult to get to."

Still, Larson and executives at New Nevada Lands find themselves in the role of an oil painter who is handed the largest blank canvas he ever could imagine.

"This land to me is totally fascinating," says Larson. "The more I look at it, the more opportunities I see."

New Nevada Lands is only the latest in a long line of owners who've looked to create opportunity out of the land.

The company, controlled by Florida's Conduit LLC, bought the property from Pico Holdings Inc. of La Jolla, Calif., in late 2011, paying about $31 million.

Pattalock had worked for Pico Holdings before he was named as president of New Nevada Lands. Pico had owned the land for 15 years, and had sold off several large parcels.

But the land's history extends to the era of Abraham Lincoln, when Congress authorized a land grant to help the Central Pacific Railroad finance construction of the railroad that linked the West Coast to the rest of the nation.

The railroad was granted alternate square miles of land 20 miles either side of the tracks. The thought: The Central Pacific would sell the land to settlers, raising cash to pay off the debt it incurred while building the railroad and creating a market of railroad-using farmers and ranchers in the meantime.

It was a great idea in the Midwest. Not so much so in arid Nevada, where the land that Larson is trying to market these days has been handed from one railroad company to another, and one investment group to another, since the paperwork allowing its sale was completed in 1876.

Initially, the checkerboard pattern of land granted to the Central Pacific and its successor, the Southern Pacific Railroad, totaled nearly 5.1 million acres in Nevada, says historian Robert E. Stewart of Carson City, who has conducted extensive research into the history of federal and state land business in Nevada.

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Northern Nevada Business Weekly Updated Jan 21, 2013 12:00AM Published Jan 21, 2013 12:00AM Copyright 2013 Northern Nevada Business Weekly. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.