Photo By David Robert Rancho Haven resident Sandy McGill stands behind a card table covered with initiative petitions now being circulated in Washoe County.

Sandy McGill lives in Rancho Haven, a hamlet of perhaps 110 people on the western boundary of Washoe County north of Red Rock. Its bucolic setting is part of its appeal to her. So she’s alarmed by plans of local developers to get an island of land 16 miles north of Reno annexed to the city, putting Rancho Haven between two blocs of urban congestion.

“We are a rural area, and they are trying to put a suburb of 25,000 people north of us, and the traffic from that area will be running through our rural areas where we have horses on the sides of the roads, kids crossing the street.”

So McGill has become a supporter of an effort to circulate a couple of initiative petitions designed to curb sprawl and align planning with available water. One petition, if enacted by the voters, would reduce “leapfrog” annexation by requiring a minimum contact of the annexed area with the present city boundary and limiting outward expansion when annexation does take place.

The other measure would tie growth to available water. An earlier plan to include language requiring a public vote before importation of water to feed more growth was dropped when attorneys told the group it would make the petition vulnerable to a court challenge.

Supporters of the petitions went to the Washoe County Commission on March 11 and asked that they be placed on the November ballot directly, which is within the power of the commission. But on a 3-2 vote, commissioners Robert Larkin, Bonnie Weber and David Humke declined to go along, meaning the only way for supporters to get the two measures onto the ballot is by gathering nearly 19,000 valid signatures. The petition was filed with the county voter registrar Monday, starting the clock running on signature gathering. The group will now have 127 days to collect the signatures, which must be turned in on July 21.

The same group on March 10 also filed a lawsuit to overturn Reno’s designation of a huge swath of county land between the city and Pyramid Lake as a “special planning area” in its master plan. That swatch includes the Winnemucca Ranch area.

Rush to grow
The initiative petitions are also attracting downstream support. Stuart MacKie, owner of a Hazen/Fernley farm, attended the filing of the petition and said he believed there is enormous developer pressure on governing bodies in Washoe County to approve large scale development because a door is closing on available water. He said dealing with local developers, engineers, and government officials has convinced him that they all believe there are only seven years left before the area will have to import water, and they are trying to get as much acreage as possible approved for development before then.

“Once all that large amount of water … disappears, there’s nothing but small—very small, actually—developments that can go in,” MacKie said. “And they don’t want that. They want to put these [large developments] in, in the next seven years.”

He said local officials have carefully not publicized the seven-year figure in order to keep the public in the dark about an impending rush to develop large tracts.

The ballot measure’s curb on annexation is designed to force local planners to insist on tighter and more compact development by local firms instead of always reaching out for more land.

The two measures, if they qualify for the ballot, will read:

(1) “To ensure a compact urban form and the efficient extension of city infrastructure and services, the Truckee Meadows Regional Plan shall be amended to require that in Washoe County voluntary annexations must be (a) conterminous by no less than 15 percent, directly or through a separating element as identified in NRS [Nevada Revised Statute] 268.670, to a boundary of the annexing city; (b) capable of being developed for urban purposes; and (c) an incremental expansion outward from a city’s urban core.”

(2) “The Truckee Meadows Regional Plan shall be amended to reflect and to include a policy or policies requiring that local government land use plans be based upon and in balance with identified and sustainable water resources available within Washoe County.”

In some ways, the petitions seek to hold local governments to already existing planning guidelines. The Truckee Meadows Regional Plan, for instance, already calls for “compact urban forms” instead of sprawl.

Bob Fulkerson of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, who is organizing the petition drive, acknowledged the over-reliance on initiative petitions by innumerable groups. He said the anti-sprawl measures were a last resort after long efforts to accomplish the same things without going to the ballot.

“We have tried—I mean, in 2006, Susan Lynn and Doug Smith went here before the Washoe County Commission and said, ‘We’d like you to put an advisory question about growth on the ballot,'” Fulkerson said.

“They [the county commissioners] said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, let’s not do that. Let’s create a task force, and we’ll talk about it.’ We met for 18 months, and it was a great broad-based effort, and we came up with some great sustainable, smart growth plans. And everybody agreed to it,” Fulkerson said.

“But yet then, the Regional Governing Board and the [Reno City] Council succeeded in just stripping everything out of that regional plan. Dave Ziegler was fired because he advocated more smart growth, more compact development. The regional planning commissioners that voted in favor of more compact development were ‘excused’ and replaced. And so we’re at the end of our rope.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...