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Coalition issues statement on UNR farmland development proposal

By ThisIsReno

Land parcel at the Main Station Field Laboratory proposed to be rezoned by the University of Nevada.

Land parcel at the Main Station Field Laboratory proposed to be rezoned by the University of Nevada.

By Shelly Brant

The University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) has submitted to the Reno City Council (Council) a proposal to zone 104 acres of the Main Station Field Laboratory (MSFL) light industrial, in preparation for commercial sale. UNR and the Board of Regents (Regents) are pushing through with this proposal in spite of overwhelming opposition and ongoing concern about food security, due diligence, and the safety and cost issues associated with flood water storage capacity. Homeowners, businesses, planners, government agencies, farmers, ranchers, local food and business advocates, UNR students and the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources Advisory Board (CABNR) have been and continue to be in opposition to this proposal.

On March 27, 2013 the Council will again consider the UNR proposal. Here is what the Coalition to Preserve the UNR Farmland and Floodplain (Coalition) wants you to know about this issue.

At the Council’s request UNR conducted a series of workshops to identify and address stakeholder concerns.  However, the concerns remain unanswered.

The land in question floods on a regular basis, which is bad for business and residents but great for agriculture and open space. This land has experienced at least 14 one-hundred year floods on the Truckee River, Steamboat Creek, or both, since records started being kept in 1864, meaning the land floods roughly every 10 years. The Truckee River Flood Project plans to use this space for a multimillion dollar flood control project, which will utilize the open land to store flood waters for the safety of the entire Truckee Meadows. Industrial development will reduce floodwater storage capacity on this land, thus increasing the flood danger to area families and businesses, and costing tax payers more money.

In addition, since this land is almost entirely in Critical Flood Zone 1, if development is allowed, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will adjust the Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM), resulting in a significant financial burden in the form of flood insurance premiums for surrounding residents and commercial properties on the west side of McCarran.  Flood insurance requirements could adversely affect future commercial activity.

UNR asserts the104 acres, located on the east side of McCarran, are suitable for commercial use because the land west of McCarran is already built out with commercial development. However, a 64-acre parcel at the northwest corner of the McCarran and Mill intersection is owned by the Truckee River Flood Management Authority. The land further east and southeast of McCarran is primarily residential.  The 104 acres should be set aside for flood plain, open space, and agricultural use so that it remains in character with the existing neighborhood.

UNR is a land grant university with one of its core missions being agricultural research. Since 2004, universities have seen a 31% increase in agricultural science enrollment, per the Capitol Press. UNR is situated in a unique climatic region and is ideally positioned to foster a modern agriculture research program dealing with drought and extreme temperature swings. Should this zoning pass and a sale follow (and it will, otherwise why spend so much money and effort to have it zoned for maximum monetary value), our most valuable agricultural assets – land and education – will be lost.

As stewards of our land-grant university mission and educational program UNR has a responsibility to develop and maintain an agricultural program in Nevada. Instead, the systematic sale of Nevada Experiment Station property and assets and the ongoing reduction of agricultural college staffing levels have greatly curtailed the university’s ability to meet this responsibility.

Should this property be sold, the original parcel will be reduced from 1,000+ to fewer than 700 acres, leaving approximately 650 acres available for agricultural research. The proposed and completed land transactions we are currently aware of would result in the loss of over 38% of research land on this parcel alone.  Other publically owned farmlands under the Regent’s stewardship have already been sold and the resulting income used for purposes other than agriculture program development. MSFL is the only remaining urban farmland in the region – the Coalition community is encouraging UNR and the Regents to consider this land a piece of a larger plan to further develop the burgeoning local food economy, create jobs, and protect area residents and businesses.

UNR is offering the Valley Road Field Laboratory (VRFL) as an alternative site for agricultural research. However, soil conditions at the VRFL cannot support field studies on crop plants due to contamination from previous chemical research. While the High Desert Farming Initiative (HDFI) should be applauded for its focus on in-ground organic hoop house production, MSFL is a better location for this and other agriculture programs.  The soil is perfect for growing food crops for human consumption because it routinely floods and is reinvigorated with river sediment.

Additionally, when UNR installed the HDFI in the VRFL hoop houses, the Master Gardener program was displaced.  The hoop houses provided Master Gardeners a place to experiment with different crops suitable for home gardening and to grow seedlings for the hugely popular Plant Faire fundraiser.  The University of Nevada, Cooperative Extension estimates that in 2011 the Master Gardener program contributed $230,000 in volunteer effort to the community; the value of their food-growing expertise is incalculable.  The number of new home gardeners has increased steadily for years – the Master Gardener program is need now more than ever.

The average American farmer is 57 years old.  Large numbers of them will retire soon and we will need new young farmers to take their place.  An increasing number of young people are drawn to agriculture and are enrolling at universities with sustainable-agriculture degree and certification programs; students want to learn how to use cutting edge technology to produce food in a sustainable way, free of pesticides and herbicides.

Local experts in sustainable agriculture, CABNR, and UNCE recently came together to develop the Main Station Field Laboratory Strategic Plan, for consideration by UNR and the Regents.  This plan demonstrates what a cutting edge program might look like; it includes programs like small plot development, a small farm incubator program, and small farm certification programs. Our university system still holds the agricultural assets necessary to develop this kind of program – a degree program that will draw young people here and keep Nevada’s students in-state.  This land is vital to a 21st century program.

The only USDA certified meat processing and packaging facility in Nevada, Wolf Pack Meats (WPM), is located on the Main Station Field Laboratory.  Many Nevada ranchers and farmers use this facility because it is close and the USDA stamp allows them to sell their products by piece directly to consumers.  The proposed zoning will result in development next to a slaughtering facility, which historically has shown to be in conflict with commercial activities, as complaints about odors, noise, and activities will ensue. When this happens Nevadans will lose an agricultural infrastructure treasure that is important for our economy and local food security.

UNR has repeatedly assured us they will not, and have no intention to, close Wolf Pack Meats (WPM), however recent administrative decisions put the facility at risk.

Before the UNR meat sciences program was closed WPM operated as a research facility, not a business. When UNR and community stakeholders met in early 2012 to review the WPM financials, they determined that it was operating in the red. The group agreed that a 12 cent per pound increase would keep WPM open and in the black as a UNR business entity, maintain access for the ranchers and farmers who process their animals at the facility, and bring the prices in line with other area meat packing companies.

At an August 2012 follow-up meeting, UNR and stakeholders determined that WPM was indeed operating in the black and was no longer a burden on the University. CABNR has plans to hire an animal nutritionist to conduct research involving processing at WPM, thereby returning part of the operation of the facility to research. Stakeholders at that meeting were given the impression that this was sufficient to maintain current prices at WPM.

Recently, UNR announced an additional 12 cent increase, to take effect March 14, 2013.  The cumulated 24 cent per pound cost hike results in a 36% cost increase for local farmers, ranchers, and consumers. WPM is operating in the black and has a nine-month waiting list so a price increase is not necessary to keep the facility financially viable. However, these prices will be a big blow to many of our ranchers and farmers. They will be forced to take their business elsewhere, providing UNR a reason to close WPM due to lack of use.

Governor Sandoval recently indentified agriculture as a huge economic driver for Nevada. UNR could enhance Nevada’s agricultural economy, address stakeholder concerns, and help create jobs by revitalizing the agriculture research program.

In his letter to the RGJ editor on February 6th, Michael Harper pointed out a good reason for the Council to reject this proposal:  Regional planning based on one institution’s financial plans does not address the needs of the community at large.

As a community that values local food, open space preservation and floodplain conservation, and our land grant university’s intended purpose, the community expects the City of Reno, City of Sparks, and Washoe County master plans to be updated to reflect this trend and tie into the Governor’s proposed state plan as it applies to flooding and agriculture.

Please come to the Reno City Council meeting on March 27th and support the effort to keep this land in use as intended – as a floodplain and farmland.

We would like to get a count of people that will show up at the meeting. If you plan to attend, please email a “yes” to [email protected] by March 15. Contact your local, county, and state representatives, as well as the Board of Regents, and ask them to support the rezoning of the 104 acres of UNR farmland to open space.

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