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Truckee Meadows lands bill is being advanced again

By Bob Conrad

The Truckee Meadows Lands Bill received a negative reception two years ago when it was brought before the public. That was after years of crafting and various workshops to solicit feedback on what such a bill could entail.

More than 100 people packed a room in February of 2020 at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center to air concerns, sometimes yelling at government officials. About five people spoke in favor of the proposed bill.

Concerns included lack of water, property allegedly being turned over from federal governments to local developers, and impacts on ranching, mining and wildlife. After the meeting, Washoe County officials said they would regroup to consider the feedback.

Then came the pandemic. Public discussion of the bill went on hiatus. 

The Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada, in late December however, published a study that pushed for passage of the bill. 

Mike Kazmierski of EDAWN said the region is running out of land that can be developed. A lands bill could change that. Last week he issued a call for support of the Truckee Meadows Lands Bill.

Community members gathered in February 2020 to discuss the proposed Truckee Meadows Lands Bill.
Community members gathered in February 2020 to discuss the proposed Truckee Meadows Lands Bill.

The bill would allow for federal land within “disposal boundaries” to be auctioned to the highest bidders. 

“The main reason for the study was to quantify the need for more land in the region and provide the data needed to support the passage of the Truckee Meadows Public Lands Management Act,” Kazmierski said. “Once approved, the Act will allow for the auction of federal land just east of the City of Sparks to increase our land supply, with the proceeds of the sales used to provide resources for parks, river protection, Lake Tahoe, wetlands and other enhancements to our quality of life.”

Kyle Roerink with the Great Basin Water Network (GBWN), who attended the meeting two years ago and was critical of where it was at the time, expressed skepticism of the renewed interest in a bill.

“Recent records obtained by GBWN demonstrate that politicians and lobbyists have been engaging behind closed doors on this bill for the past year –– excluding many of the concerned community members that have been engaged on this public lands sell-off attempt for more than a decade,” he said. “These records also demonstrate that special interests want to sidestep and undermine our bedrock environmental laws.” 

The EDAWN study was supported by the City of Reno, Washoe County and the City of Sparks, along with developers and industry groups.

The study had a clear message: “Northern Nevada developers, especially residential, will face challenges in finding desirable parcels to accommodate projects by 2027 if nothing is done to expand regional access to lands, or sooner if the [Bureau of Land Management] fails to release lands as needed.”

“The region’s most powerful players want to implement the same growth model in Washoe County that Las Vegas has used since the late 1990s. Is this what Washoe really wants?”

U.S. Senator Jacky Rosen is the lead on the legislation for Nevada’s congressional delegation.

“Senator Rosen’s office is continuing to engage in conversations with local stakeholders to produce an updated discussion draft and legislation in the coming months that will build consensus for public lands conservation and smart economic development across Washoe County,” her spokesperson said in an emailed statement. 

Sparks Mayor Ed Lawson said he has been regularly talking about the bill since last March and hopes a bill will be submitted in Congress by year’s end.

Lawson said many concerns about the bill from two years ago have been addressed.

“The area of disposal is much smaller,” he said. “We’re asking for less land. There’s some strategic places the U.S. Forest Service wants to keep. The BLM wants to keep a couple strategic places. There’s an area of environmental concern to the east of Sparks. It’s roughly 10,000 acres. We were not going to touch that.”

Lawson said he hopes that proceeds from the bill can be used for conservation and river preservation projects. 

Brain Bonnenfont with the Center for Regional Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, confirmed land is becoming scarce, and consequently, the price of housing will continue to increase.

“There should be zero doubt that one day greater Reno-Sparks will run out of suitable, privately-owned land for development due to our topographic challenges,” he said. “It is important to note that the [EDAWN] land study focuses on land for detached single-family subdivisions only. 

“Yes, there is infill land and a need for attached (‘missing middle’) and multifamily product, but the demand for single-family (detached) product will not end as we grow.”

The hills east of Sparks in August 2020 during the Prater Fire. Image: Ty O’Neil / This Is Reno

Bonnenfant added that, regardless of government policies and economic conditions, land will continue to be scarce. As a result, housing and other developments will be increasingly more expensive. 

“One way to alleviate the rising costs of housing, outside of bringing more supply, is to obtain vacant, federally-owned land where it is cheaper to build,” he said. “The region’s economy and quality of life will enjoy a much higher rate of success if a blueprint for land acquisitioning and purposing is brought forward now and not when it’s an emergency.”

That’s where the lands bill could come in.

Congressman Mark Amodei, reached by phone today, said he was unaware of the bill’s progress. Getting a lands bill introduced in Congress could take more time due to the upcoming election, he said. 

Roerink with the Water Network said any efforts to advance the bill need more input. 

“We need leaders to engage in an open, public-stakeholder driven process so there can be frank discussions about the future of our water supply, social infrastructure, economic growth and public land sales,” he told This Is Reno. “The region’s most powerful players want to implement the same growth model in Washoe County that Las Vegas has used since the late 1990s. Is this what Washoe really wants?” 

Similar to the concerns he had two years ago, Roerink said concerns about water availability need to be addressed.

“We are taking a hard look at the state of the Truckee River, regional groundwater trends and storage capacity to help ensure the public has the best understanding of what is happening as it relates to our water supply for the coming decades,” he added. “We need to think about the margin of error as it relates to actual impacts on water, wildlife and other climate change impositions. No officials are talking about that. It is business as usual.”

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