PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS A speedway near Mustang is one business that would benefit from a proposed county code change to allow billboards.

The Washoe County Commission last week engaged in a discussion of a proposal to exempt three sections of land in the county from billboard restrictions.

For months there have been below-the-radar rumors that several parcels would be treated differently under the county’s restrictive billboard code. At the commission meeting, county senior planner Trevor Lloyd tried to calm that concern, though he didn’t deal with the question of several parcels. A slide was shown during his presentation: “Is Washoe County establishing an exception for one property owner only? No, at least three possible locations have been identified at this time.”

It was unclear what prompted the proposal in the first place, since there has been little if any agitating for change in the county billboard code. Lloyd said he and the county staff had been “request[ed] to revisit an issue having to do with the sign code.” And one of his visual aids said that on Aug. 26 last year, the County Commissioners directed the staff to draft language “to provide for certain large signs in the proposed sign code, subject to approval of a special use permit by the [commissioners].”

A map showed three locations that would be affected by the new proposal. Two are east of Sparks, one near Wadsworth, the other near Mustang. The third is northwest of Reno near Bordertown Casino.

On March 29, 2000, a group called Citizens for a Scenic Reno filed a city initiative petition providing for a cap of 278 on the number of off-premise billboards in Reno. On the day after CSR submitted its signatures, the billboard industry filed its own initiative, but was unable subsequently to get the signatures it needed. So only the CSR—designated R1—went on the ballot. It was approved by city voters by a margin of 57 to 43 percent. A billboard company—Eller, formerly Donrey—filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to keep the measure from taking effect on technical grounds.

Though only voters inside the city limits voted on the measure, it has been regarded as a good indicator of local sentiment on billboards, and the county has strong anti-billboard language. In the section of Interstate 80 between Mustang and Sparks, only one billboard remains, an advertisement for back pain treatment at Northern Nevada Medical Center.

The site among the three proposed to the County Commission that has drawn the most fire so far is located in hills above the Truckee River canyon east of Sparks near Mustang. It is the site of a speedway owned by Norm Dianda. An exemption would allow a sign advertising the Wild West Autosports Park, giving drivers on Interstate 80 a better indication of where the speedway is located than it currently has—a small sign off the highway at the start of the drive to the site.

Billboards would have to advertise certain activities to be permitted. In devising language for the Commission, county staffers proposed something called regional recreational, travel and tourism (RRTT) locations where signs could be located if the County Commission consented. Three places fit the definition, a definition which was apparently created as a result of guidance from the commissioners.

Asked how they identified the three sites as RRTT, Lloyd said, “Based on a number of criteria. Based on zoning, what current zoning is currently out there, what zoning would allow for unlimited gaming is one option. Also, outdoor recreation within those certain zones. That’s really limited to a certain number of zoning categories. It would have to fall under one of those, or large-destination resort, and we limited that. We looked on the map throughout Washoe County and there were only three locations with that potential.”

There was some discussion of the county allowing some billboards and denying others based on content, which could raise legal problems.

Lori Wray of Scenic Nevada reminded the commissioners that the county has a policy of no new billboards, and urged them not to make exceptions:

“So today, we hope your direction to staff will be to confirm that earlier direction, policy direction, to prohibit billboards and digital billboards. … The draft allows all signs to display off-premise ads, which is the definition of a billboard. … The draft will allow billboards but the regulations that control billboards have been thrown out. … The draft also gives one property owner the ability to put up a digital billboard in East Truckee Canyon and we think this is a violation of the state law and ethic standards. We refer to it as the Dianda exemption and staff calls it the RRTT category. … Norm Dianda’s motor sports park is the only existing venue in the county today that would be using the loophole in the regulations to get a billboard location on the freeway.”

Referring to some backup materials given to the commissioners by staffers, Commissioner Kitty Jung asked Lloyd, “In your section when you’re defining regional recreation travel and tourism, what is large scale lodging? What is large scale entertainment? What’s large numbers of visitors? Do we have an operational definition or is it up to staff’s discretion?”

Lloyd answered, “I think it would be more up to the commission’s discretion, when a special use permit is brought here before this group. And you’re right, we left that intentionally undefined. However, it sounds like at least two of the commissioners would like to see more definition.”

The staff gave the commissioners a list of five options they could follow in dealing with the draft language. Doing nothing and leaving the county’s current policy in place was not one of the options listed..

County Commission chair Marsha Berkbigler said, “I also agree with Commissioner June that it is a badge of honor that we have the toughest sign code in the state. I have a real problem. I still don’t know what I’m going to do.” She said she had “a problem with the RRTT as opposed to just general billboards.”

Commissioner Jeanne Herman said, “There are certain areas that are in need of more signage,” and she suggested that different places be “looked at separately.”

Commissioner Vaughn Hartung said, “But it seems as if at every time someone wants to do something there’s a hundred people who are saying no, no, no, I don’t want to do that. The sad part is that most of the people who say I don’t want to do that are not the same people who pull out their checkbooks and try to create economic development. That’s the hard part for me.”

Jung said she would vote for “option two,” which is the closest item on the list to leaving the existing code in place. But at another point, she said, “But I do definitely believe there needs to be a directional public safety sign” on the freeway where the speedway exit is.

Commissioner Bob Lucey expressed concerns about the county’s legal position and the size of signs. He proposed that the commission set the matter aside to add amendments, and his motion carried.

Jung also said, “There have been allegations that there has been some verbal gymnastics or legal gymnastics gone on to make this fit. I’m not at all indicting staff on this, just by the way. They were asked to do this. Staff just does what we tell them to do. So I would feel terrible when people get mad and yell at staff. Yell at me. That’s why I get paid the big bucks.”

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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...