Dissecting key elements of Reno’s zoning code update, which would alter development, land use
Special to the NNBW
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fifth in a 6-part series of stories in the NNBW's newest quarterly edition of the Northern Nevada Real Estate Journal, which looks at various statistics, trends, project updates and more regarding commercial real estate across greater Reno-Sparks. See the full slate inside the Wednesday, Oct. 28, print edition of the NNBW.
- Part One: Amid Northern Nevada retail struggles, innovative projects push ahead
- Part Two: ‘Time will tell’: Reno-area developers, contractors prep for uncertain winter as pandemic impacts continue
- Part Three: Reno-Sparks multifamily housing demand remains strong heading into winter
- Part Four: As home sales thrive across Reno-Sparks, land supply continues dive
RENO, Nev. — The current city of Reno land development code is more than 3 inches thick.
Updates to the code, which include changes to zoning regulations and development standards, as well as the simplification and streamlining of processes, is less than half that, says Arlo Stockham, community development director and acting assistant city manager.
“The code is more difficult than it needs to be to understand, navigate and know what the rules are and how to follow them,” Stockham said. “We are simplifying it, modernizing it, and making it clearer and more understandable, as well incorporating some of the more modern development priorities.
“It’s just a lot easier to understand and navigate.”
Even with the sweeping revamp of the code written in 1999, the revision still numbers more than 700 pages. The updates dovetail with the city of Reno’s master plan, which included some significant changes in policy goals, Stockham said.
The updates to the land development code are crucial to implementing the city’s master plan.
A few of the big-picture goals, he added, include increased support for affordable housing and environmental sustainable design.
“It was very different in the 1990s,” Stockham says. “We didn’t have the kind of affordable housing crisis that we have right now — there weren’t as many people, we were not as dense or urbanized, and climate change was not something people talked about.”
Another overarching objective was to create a user-friendly document that saves time for both users and city staff. Stockham says it takes more than one full time staff member just to answer daily questions about what’s allowed and what’s not allowed — and input gleaned from the private sector says residents spend an equal amount of time trying to figure out answers to their questions before calling the city.
“We are really hoping it reduces administrative costs both for the city and for the development community,” he said.
Key changes to land development code
Among the many changes:
- Reorganization: Currently, users are forced to bounce around the code document to find answers, Stockham said. The revamped code reorganized and rearranged information in a much more logical manner. The city of Reno engaged a national consulting firm to help implement national best practices for navigation and content. “Development regulations are always going to be confusing, but (the goal is) to minimize that confusion,” Stockham said.
- Special-use permits: The city targeted smaller projects that might require special use permits in an effort to reduce cost barriers for those projects. In conjunction, there are significantly expanded and detailed design standards that require appealing but feasible design.
- Streamlining: The new code includes active hyperlinks that drive users to an exact spot in the document. A navigation pane also allows users to quickly find specific information. “A lot more people will be using this online because it fully integrates new document technology,” Stockham said.
- Updated land-use tables: Current land-use tables display the various uses allowed in a particular zone. Users must wade through multiple tables, but the new code has consolidated them into one table with zoning districts and their specific uses.
These changes are woven throughout the code and benefit both residents seeking answers and the development community, Stockham said.
Addressing the region’s housing issues is an ongoing, multi-step effort, Stockham said. A number of new provisions were added to the revamped code to help developers erect more affordable housing units.
These provisions include incentives for affordable deed-restricted housing, as well as market-rate attainable housing such as duplexes, triplexes and other units that straddle the middle ground between apartments and single-family residences.
Current density limits for land zoned for multifamily use is 14 units per acre — but there’s no differentiation between a 5,000-square-foot penthouse and a 900-square-foot studio, Stockham said.
That’s led to a reduction of smaller, more affordable condos and apartments being built because developers reach density-limit caps before they reach building-size limits, which in turn has led to an oversupply in two- and three-bedroom apartments and an undersupply in smaller units.
New provisions allow for increased density for smaller unit sizes, which should allow for more units to be created in the same exact building footprint, Stockham said. Instead of 14 units, developers may be able to build as many as 20 smaller apartments, he added.
“We are taking an incremental approach, because it’s a sensitive topic,” he added. “We are staying out of densifying single-family areas with this code update, but we will examine zoning maps and neighborhood requirements for capital improvements to find areas where we can allow some additional density so that it’s in appropriate locations and not unduly impactful.”
Current parking ordinances are cumbersome and highly outdated, Stockham said. When the current code was written in the 1990s, municipalities required massive parking lots that typically are rarely full — especially as consumers continue to gravitate toward online shopping.
Big parking lots have become obsolete, and the entire parking code framework is being reworked to modern industry recommendations that generally require less parking, he added.
“Parking is a major cost for projects, especially when you have to build parking lots that are never used,” Stockham said. “We hope that with the reduced (requirements) some of our outlying centers can intensify over time and add buildings on portions of their parking lots.”
Design and sustainability
There are various design and sustainability principles throughout the code, but there has been a big push for a targeted sustainability ordinance that requires a certain level of sustainable design for all future development.
Developers have voiced concerns that the ordinance would increase project costs, but Stockham said the ordinance provides a lengthy menu of options for developers to choose from to reach a total number of points.
“For some of our large housing or commercial developments, it ups the standards a bit,” he said. “But they can pick from a long list of sustainability features to reach that point total.
“Some in the building community don’t want this, while others think it should be much stronger. We are pretty comfortable that we’ve structured something that’s meaningful and moves toward environmental sustainability but doesn’t create significant financial impacts, especially for products that are more sensitive to pricing.”
Builder reaction and cost concerns
Kurt Stitser, acting president of The Builders Association of Northern Nevada and owner of Built construction, said developers are cognizant of the impacts their efforts have on natural resources and environmental sustainability.
The new ordinances weren’t fully vetted and lack any type of cost analysis, he added.
“We embrace sustainability. We just want to make sure it’s done right and that the jurisdictions enforcing it have done the necessary diligence and understand the ramifications and implications before enacting it,” Stitser said.
One of Stitser’s main concerns is the added cost sustainability measures will bring at a time when high building costs are already a major concern.
“The new code updates really did a lot to mandate higher-performing houses from an energy code standpoint. Granted, over the lifetime of the building you’ll realize the benefits of more sustainable and efficient construction, but that has an upfront cost,” Stitser said. “We are setting all-time median highs for home prices pretty much month over month. Added costs to construction gets passed along in sales price — it has to.
“As we continue to add constraints to the building process, it raises the cost of construction and the cost of a product that we bring to market.”
The city of Reno Planning Commission has completed its review of the new code, and Reno City Council is reviewing the document from start to finish in two special meetings. The first was on Oct. 18, and the second is scheduled for Nov. 5.
Planning Commission adoption is scheduled for November, and final city council adoption is slated for December. There is a one-year phase-in process where applicants can continue to use the existing code for projects or use the new code, which will be fully in effect starting in 2022.
“It’s been a pretty fresh look at design requirements throughout, modernizing them and updating them,” Stockham said. “Hopefully we are going to have quality development coming in through a less-painful approval process.”
Construction could begin next year and require about 500 to 600 workers, with a permanent workforce starting at 150 to 200 people with potential to expand.