Sunday, January 30, 2011

Oasis Part 6 (Revised)

Oasis Part 6 (Revisited): Spring in the Desert

The 2007 Amendment to the regional plan in Washoe County Nevada added Spring Mountain (previously Winnemucca Ranch) to Reno's City Limits. The process of adding Spring Mountain had been a long and controversial one, its formalization in the 2007 Amendment was a victory for its proponents and seen as a huge loss for its detractors. The elements leading up to its inclusion show how the intersection of politics and institutions can create an adversarial environment with drastic consequences on the future of the region.

This regional plan was modeled after the one in Clark County (the one with Las Vegas). It would be county wide, have a Regional Planning Commission (RPC) composed of citizen planners, have a Regional Planning Governing Board (RPGB) composed of elected officials from the three local governments, and have a full staff of planners.

There were several drawbacks to the plan though. The first major obstacle was the definition of region. The 'region' according to the plan and state law encompasses only Washoe county. In reality, the geography of the watershed alone crosses two states, and five counties. In terms of population and census defined areas the Region should encompass the Tahoe Region, Carson, Douglas County, Fallon, and Fernley. Defining the region as the county's boundaries and excluding places like Incline Village meant that the regional plan would never be regional.

The second hurdle for the regional plan was its power. The regional plan holds very little in terms of enforcement capabilities. If a local government were to violate the regional plan, there are few options with a minimal chance of punishment or being overturned. A citizen or other entity can bring suit against anyone that violates the plan. The appeals process for citizens or for other governments is long and expensive with an uncertain outcome. Adherence to the regional plan is basically voluntary. While the proposal is in litigation though, certain aspects are allowed to move forward and a complete freeze is almost impossible. Further, because judges are elected in the state of Nevada, developers also have a chance to contribute large sums of money to campaigns.

Third, the prevailing attitudes in Nevada prevent the regional plan from holding significant weight. Because developers fuel the region's growth and fund the area's representatives, breaking out of the 'good ole boy' mentality is next to impossible. Even developers that oppose actions from other developers have a fear of speaking up. There is an attitude that by sticking with other developers, there is a far greater likelihood of one's own project getting passed. It's not necessarily wrong. By presenting a unified front on projects, the developers collectively represent huge sums of money and the majority of houses built in the region in the last 30 years. Without the complexity of each individual issue or each individual developer's perspective, there is a strong force moving the region to make many of its decisions without significant discussion.

Much of this unified front is based off the individualist attitude of the state. The cowboy west mentality has bred generations of Nevadans obsessed with low government interference and private property rights. “Do what you want with your land and don't let the government interfere.” This attitude works great in a state with wide open lands, few people, and ample resources for everyone. In Nevada's increasingly dense metropolitan areas this is a recipe for disaster. Regardless of position on specific projects, there need to be open and honest channels of communication to manage the collective resources of the region. This has not been the case.

In fact, it is extremely formal and adversarial. Communication in the region exists almost solely in the form of council meetings with a short comment period where a commenter must designate whether he or she is for or against the proposal. But projects are subject to large changes and what one may vote for very well may not be the project that results. This is further exacerbated by the low requirement for finality of a project during the entire process of approval. A project can change drastically during every stage and thus concerned parties are often left to guess at the supposed impacts of theoretical—always subject to change—projects. It even makes attendance at meetings difficult. Often they are held around during regular business hours. It may be a developer's job to get projects approved, but concerned citizens often work other occupations, unable to go to many town hall meetings.

This is further exacerbated by the flippant attitudes that many council members often take toward public protests. “They are fringe NIMBY anti-growth activists that couldn't possibly represent the voting public.” “If it the project were such a big deal why are there so few protesters here today?” These attitudes have been openly voiced by council members during hearings. There is an active effort to marginalize opposition to development.

In the case of Spring Mountain, the name alone has been changed during the entire course of the proposal process, preventing concerned parties from even being able to name the project they are concerned with. Overall, there is not much room for opposition or even discussion on a project. The moving target of proposals, the ingrained politics, the lack of collaboration, geographic limitations and individualist attitudes are huge hurdles for a more cohesive regional plan.

Spring Mountain is a proposed development about 30 miles outside of Reno's current city limits. It is in a region that contains few if any homes around it. It is mostly a large open space; a wild desert landscape west of Pyramid Lake. There is one road running from Reno to Spring Mountain currently. It is a two lane highway that sees very little traffic. The Spring Mountain development will eventually house 26,400 residents. Skidmore College is located in a city—Saratoga Springs—the size of this development. It is literally building a town from the ground up in an area without any services currently there. Everything will have to be built there; new roads, water, police, fire, schools, power. Everything; 30 miles outside Reno.

It will generate 3.5 million gallons of sewage per day, 117,175 average trips per day (originally proposed at only 40,000), use 4,847 acre feet of water per year, generate 12,000 housing units, generate 1,869 students, need at least 5 miles of new highway, and develop 6,105 acres of open space. This is no small project. The logic for approval is odd to say the least. The handbook states that Spring Mountain is in the TMSA (Truckee Meadows Service Area) but that is because the RPGB (the elected ones) approved an amendment putting Spring Mountain in the TMSA, then approved the development. Its conformance was rigged, approved before it was evaluated.

Let's talk transportation. The Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) prepared a report voicing many difficulties and problematic elements of Spring Mountain's disconnected location. Without explicitly calling the project a nightmare, the RTC reports numerous misdirections in the initial proposals, and cites easily calculated cost nightmares. In terms of roads only, the RTC report says the development will never pay for it. There must be new multi-lane road generation: the shortest route to 395 would be the most expensive, or Winnemucca Ranch Road and Pyramid Highway must be converted from 2 lane facilities for almost 20 miles. “The internal capture rate (trips not going to Reno) may be unrealistically high.” Spring Mountain is out of RTC's Regional Road Impact Fee (RRIF) and even if it were the new fees would “not capture...100% of its legal share of needed new capacity improvements.” Further, the proposed 2012 improvements to Pyramid Highway will be insufficient for the traffic generated by Spring Mountain. When it is built it will cause more congestion on the already crowded roadway. The rest of the report is littered with problems and cost deficiencies.

Because the development is a 'Special Planning Area' it does not have to conform to the Regional Plan or submit certain aspects to the RPC for conformance or revision. In fact, the handbook cleverly disguises its inclusion in the 2007 amendment as justification for conformance when it realistically has no requirements at all. This sort of circular logic pervades the entire handbook. Nothing quantitative is said, there are only qualitative, politically approved statements.

Looking at the costs of residential developments currently in the city's limits and how they never pay for themselves, it goes without saying that a development like this could easily bankrupt the city. Even more worrisome is the precedent this development sets; Reno's city council is willing to bend over backwards to scratch the back of a developer whose project does not fit into the regional plan. How can the local governments ever turn down a development that they don't see as advantageous to the region or even in line with the regional plan? The short answer is that they can't. The regional plan holds no weight; no enforcement, no conformance.

Next: Everything everyone already knows and what makes it nice—for real this time.