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Truckee Meadows lands act seeks to open 90,000 acres for possible development

Rob Sabo

Special to the NNBW

Here, a new home is being constructed as part of the Cliffs at Somersett project on Northwest Reno. The future of development in Washoe County is at the heart of the Truckee Meadows Public Lands Management Act.
Photo: Rob Sabo

RENO, Nev. — Nevada has been the fastest-growing state the past five decades, with the majority of that growth located in and around Clark County.

Washoe County has seen its fair share of growth as well — the county’s population spiked 10.5 percent to more than 465,000 residents from 2010 through 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau reports.

A lands bill that will be submitted to Congress in June seeks to balance Washoe County’s need to manage future growth while maintaining and protecting the region’s coveted open spaces.

Potential impacts of the Truckee Meadows Public Lands Management Act were the focus of a late-February public comment session at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center. The meeting drew scores of residents who weren’t hesitant about voicing concerns about the bill’s potential ramifications on the quality of life in Northern Nevada.

Chief among residents’ worries were potential intrusion on environmentally sensitive or protected areas, unchecked development that could lead to environmental issues such as the flooding that’s plagued Swan Lake in Lemmon Valley, and that the bill will enable developers eager to drink from the public lands trough.

A necessary step forward?

Currently, approximately 4.5 million acres of federally owned land within Washoe County is held in a checkerboard pattern that inhibits development.

Additional development in pristine areas is chief among citizen concerns about the Truckee Meadows Public Lands Management Act. Here, a new home in Toll Brothers’ Cliffs at Somersett development creeps up the south flank of Peavine Mountain.
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The Truckee Meadows Public Lands Management Act recommends that about 90,000 of those acres — about 2 percent — be made available for sale to better support infill development and allow future development in closer proximity to existing infrastructure.

While residents’ concerns are valid, officials say the lands bill is a necessary step forward because it provides a pathway for responsible growth in Washoe County — though, Southern Nevada’s explosive growth serves as a cautious reminder of the impacts of rampant development.

However, Reno-Sparks likely will never look like Southern Nevada. Las Vegas is the undisputed gambling capital of the nation and sees tens of millions of visitors each year for parties, play and conventions.

Its more-stodgy neighbor to the north, meanwhile, also offers gambling but is more nationally known for its strengths as a transportation, distribution and e-commerce fulfillment hub; an outdoors mecca; and a flourishing technology center.

Dylan Shaver, chief of staff for the city of Reno, says it’s a delicate balancing act to provide land needed to build homes for all the new residents coming into the region while at the same time protecting the quality of life current residents expect and demand.

The TMPLMA is not a rubber stamp that hands the keys to Northern Nevada’s open spaces to developers, he adds. 

Officials from Reno, Sparks and Washoe County are tasked with balancing the region’s need for additional development and protecting Northern Nevada’s open spaces.
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“First a jurisdiction has to nominate (a parcel), and then the federal government has to agree with the nomination,” Shaver says. “From there someone has to buy it, go through the planning process, get their development approved — and if you have been to our city council meetings, you know that’s not a sure thing.”

“A very long-term bill’

Development will continue in Northern Nevada, but it should come at a much more controlled pace than in Southern Nevada. It’s also worth noting that about half of the 90,000 acres in the disposal area can’t be developed because of slopes greater than 30 percent and other restrictions, says Don Tatro, CEO of The Builders.

Large tracts of land to the east of Sparks are well constrained by mountains, and other potentially developable parcels along Pyramid Highway or in the Bedell Flat area are far removed from existing infra structure such as power, sewer and water lines.

Developers would be hard-pressed to make profit on residential or commercial developments in remote parcels after shouldering the burden for infrastructure costs.

Don Tatro, CEO of the Builders Association of Northern Nevada, says the lands bill creates a pathway for critical infrastructure needs and development.
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Further, there won’t likely be flurries of new development if the bill passes because any potential developments would have to undergo additional layers of checks and balances to current development processes, Tatro says.

“This is a very long-term bill and regional plan,” he says. “The Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act is a much bigger disposal area that’s averaged 1,500 acres a year for potential disposal. I don’t think we could get to up to 500 acres here in the near future.

“You have to first get approved by a federal agency, you have to purchase it, then go through the current development process,” he adds. “The additional steps that involve the federal auction process and public input add a significant layer of scrutiny and time.”

Despite those additional development hurdles, the lands bill does create a pathway for critical infrastructure needs and development in areas where there likely would have been leapfrogged-patterned growth because of the checker-boarding between federally owned and private land, Tatro adds.

“This gives us the ability to grow over time as necessary within the 4.5 million acres of federally land in Washoe County, but you won’t see explosive growth the minute this bill passes,” Tatro says. “It gives some runaway for potential development as we continue to grow over the next 40 years.”

What are next steps?

The next step, says Doug Thornley, assistant city manager for the city of Sparks, is to ask the House Office of the Legislative Counsel to create draft legislation for the bill that would then be made available for public comment. If the bill has consensus in Congress, it would be drafted into law. 

he fact that such language wasn’t available during the public comment session at the convention center drew the ire of many residents.

David Solaro, assistant city manager for Washoe County, says the bill’s importance can’t be underscored as it impacts development efforts in the county for the next 50 years.

“We are charged with making sure we are ready for the future,” Solaro says. “You look at the (disposal) boundary and think it’s insane that we would grow that large, but we have to be able to think 50 years in the future.

“We have one shot at this and we need to make sure we get it right for future generations,” he adds. “That’s what we are trying to manage — the fears of today versus being prepared for the future.”

Go to landsbill.org to learn more about the Truckee Meadows Public Lands Management Act, as well as resolutions drafted by its three main backers — Washoe County and the cities of Sparks and Reno.


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