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Washoe County Public Lands Bill on Shaky Ground


This land bill will be a significant source of revenue for Washoe County if implemented properly. The goal of this bill should not be to create urban sprawl but to access federal parcels that have access to services and are adjacent to existing developments. The results of selling these strategic parcels for development will be millions of dollars the county can use to enhance parks, open space and to fund other needed public projects!

Mark Krueger, Principal - Krueger Land Team

Below is the complete article written by Benjamin Spillman:

A proposal that would pave the way for development on federal land in the Reno-Sparks area is on shaky ground.

Backers of the Washoe County-driven effort are struggling to find support from conservationists and Reno city officials.

The plan would need congressional approval to go into effect. And all three members of Northern Nevada’s congressional delegation have said they want resolutions of support from Washoe County, Sparks and Reno before introducing it in Congress.

The proposal, called the Washoe County Economic Development and Conservation Act, is divided into two major parts. In one part the bill identifies federal land mostly around the outskirts of Reno and Sparks and establishes a process for the property to be sold and potentially developed under local government jurisdiction. The other part of the bill would call for Congress to change the status of wilderness study areas in rural Washoe County to wilderness, the most protected status land can receive, or to a less protected status.

So far, backers have failed to gain support from the conservation community and local officials in Reno who have complained the proposal would encourage irresponsible development and undermine conservation of sensitive ecosystems.

"This proposal would destroy the very benefits that make this region attractive," said Brian Beffort, director of the Toiyabe Chapter of the Sierra Club.

With less than three months before mid-term elections and the conclusion of the congressional session at the end of the year, there’s not much time left in 2018 for backers to rally the local consensus federal lawmakers want to see before supporting a bill in Congress.

“I think the odds are very high against passing anything this year,” Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Carson City, told the Reno City Council. “I think that would be highly unlikely.”

Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., have also said they want local consensus before supporting a bill.

Judging by Reno council members’ reaction to the county’s plan so far, reaching consensus is going to take much more work.

Councilman Paul McKenzie slammed Washoe County officials, accusing them of working on the plan behind closed doors.

“If there is anything it hasn’t been in Washoe County, it is transparent,” McKenzie said.

McKenzie and Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus said county officials should be working more closely with the Truckee Meadows Regional Planning Agency to craft the lands bill.

Brekhus said a lands bill crafted outside the regional planning process is likely to be a “suburban sprawl inducer.”

“If anyone wants to propose large swaths to be taken out of federal ownership, they need to identify within the regional plan maps the land use purpose and the planning horizon for that,” Brekhus said.

Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve said city officials had a “really positive meeting” with Washoe County Commissioner Bob Lucey, who is leading the county’s effort.

She said city officials told Lucey the plan needed revisions to conserve open space.

“We asked them to go back to the drawing board with some of the other stakeholders, some of the preservationists,” Schieve said.

She added that council members would appreciate a presentation from the county on the proposed bill, something that hasn’t yet happened.

Lucey did not respond to multiple calls for comment.

David Solaro and Jaime Rodriguez, the staff members doing much of the work on the bill, acknowledged the tight time frame. They also said in an email that they’re still trying to get a bill in Congress by the end of the year.

Conservationists also feel left out of conversation

Reno city officials aren’t the only people who feel left out when it comes to crafting a lands bill.

Shaaron Netherton, executive director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness, said that existing drafts of the bill don’t designate enough land as wilderness and that county officials aren’t taking conservationists’ concerns seriously.

“We have and continue to have major heartburn,” Netherton said. “They are being totally secretive behind the scenes.”

Specifically, the group says the county’s proposal does not provide wilderness designation for the Fox Range wilderness study area southwest of Gerlach and reduces wilderness protections near the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, a nationally celebrated area for hunting and wildlife conservation.

The county needs "a total reset," Netherton said.

Sparks Mayor Geno Martini said he supports the bill.

“What it is going to do for us we are in favor of,” he said.

How the proposed bill would work

Modeled after similar legislation in Clark County, the Washoe County Economic Development and Conservation Act would identify areas of federally owned land near existing communities where parcels could be sold for development.

There's no estimate for how much money the idea would generate.

Under the plan, Washoe County could nominate federal land within designated boundaries for sale, referred to as the disposal area, which would generate money for conservation and public projects. The boundaries run from the edge of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation south to the northern edge of Washoe Valley, and additional land around Gerlach.

Outside the disposal area, the bill calls for the designation of 175,000 acres of wilderness and 83,000 acres of National Conservation Area. It would remove wilderness study area designation from 404,000 acres.

County officials say it would boost economic development by putting more property in private hands. Currently, the federal government owns about 83 percent of the land in Washoe County.

Sales would also generate cash flow for projects that can be difficult to fund, such as drought mitigation, wildfire prevention and sage grouse habitat preservation.

“This Lands Bill gives the local governments a say in where land is sold and developed to ensure it is sustainable and supportable growth,” the county’s fact sheet on the proposal states.

While conservationists generally agree the Clark County legislation produced benefits for Las Vegas and the entire state of Nevada, they say the proposed Washoe County version would harm northern communities and the environment.

County officials and bill supporters defend the process

While Reno council members and conservationists are clearly dismayed with the bill-crafting process, Washoe County Commission Chairwoman Marsha Berkbigler defended it.

Berkbigler said staff members working on the bill have held numerous meetings, including two public meetings in April, to solicit feedback.

“There is no value to the county doing this in a non-transparent manner,” Berkbigler said.

She also said the reason the bill is going through the county instead of the regional planning agency, as Reno council members suggested, is because that is the established process nationwide for crafting lands bills.

She acknowledged that environmental groups were not happy with the bill but didn’t give any indication that changes were in the works.

“I know that is not making some of the environmental community happy,” Berkbigler said. “They think if they see it as wilderness-like everybody else should see it as wilderness.”

Berkbigler said discontent with the results of the bill drafting process so far suggests the county is doing a good job.

“If you come up with a proposal everyone is a little dissatisfied with, you probably have a good proposal on your hands,” she said. “That is what we are attempting to do.”

The article can also be read here.

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