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Open meeting lawsuit challenges city’s repeal of shade ordinance in 2019

By Bob Conrad

The controversial repeal of the city of Reno’s former shade ordinance is now subject to a pending court decision by Washoe District Judge Scott Freeman. This Is Reno reported on the change to a city ordinance that loosened requirements to build tall buildings in downtown Reno.

The plaintiffs took the city to court to challenge the way the Reno City Council repealed the ordinance. The repeal, by removing a requirement for a special-use permit, helped pave the way for a massive luxury hotel tower to be built on the Truckee River downtown and next to the Trinity Cathedral Church. 

The plaintiffs are the church and other nearby property owners opposed to the project. 

“We hope that the special-use process stays in place,” Lynne Charlat of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Church said in 2019. “We are not against the development; we are against the density of the development being proposed.” 

District Court Judge Scott Freeman, top left, held a hearing Aug. 16, 2022 in a case alleging open meeting law violations at the city of Reno. City attorney Jonathan Shipman is bottom left; the plaintiffs’ attorney, Kerry Doyle, is bottom right.

Shade from the development would impact the temperature of the church’s sidewalks, causing them to freeze in the winter, she explained. Parking problems will increase.

Plaintiffs say the repeal of the ordinance by the council was conducted without proper public input – in violation of Nevada’s open meeting law – and with pre-arranged inclusion of the developer’s lobbyist by Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve into a council meeting even though he was not on the agenda or signed in for public comment.

The plaintiffs said developer attorney Garrett Gordon was extended time for testimony ultimately favoring the developer’s downtown hotel project.

“It’s undisputed that the city knew they were intending to repeal the shade ordinance. If you even look … at [developer attorney] Garrett Gordon’s presentation to the city council, he talks about talking to staff about the fact that they were going to repeal the shade ordinance before it was even proposed,” the plaintiffs’ attorney, Kerry Doyle argued yesterday in court.

“The mayor knew that … this development was coming down and at least wanted to touch on the concerns that were expressed in public comment — and to clarify and potentially make sure that that was not being left out of the equation.” – deputy city attorney jonathan shipman

The tower, called the Kimpton Hotel, will feature four restaurants and bars, an outdoor pool, spa, fitness center and about 16,000 square feet for meetings and events. It is planned to be 20 stories tall and will have 270 rooms and 50 residences. The project is by Las Vegas developer CAI Investments, which is also overhauling the former Harrah’s property downtown and recently purchased the Cabela’s in west Reno.

City officials in 2019 denied a correlation between ordinance changes and CAI Investments. But council members said the church was using the ordinance as a form of NIMBY-ism to block the Kimpton and other potential downtown high-rises from being built. 

Council members Naomi Duerr and Jenny Brekhus voted against changes to the ordinance. Council member Devon Reese pushed for loosening the ordinance’s requirements.

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Open meeting law violations alleged

An open meeting law complaint was filed with the Nevada Attorney General over the December 2019 council meeting. The AG found “that the Council did not stray from the agenda topic during its discussion and thus did not violate the OML in this instance.”

The AG, however, recommended the council “consider adding additional detail to future agenda items of significant public interest, such as this one, to provide extra clarity to the public of what will be discussed and to prevent the Council from being restrained during the meeting of what it can discuss.”

The plaintiffs are asking Judge Freeman to rule the city violated the open meeting law.

The Trinity Cathedral Church is among plaintiffs who took the city to court to challenge the way the Reno City Council repealed the city's shade ordinance. Image: Bob Conrad / THIS IS RENO, Aug. 16, 2022.
The Trinity Cathedral Church is among plaintiffs who took the city to court to challenge the way the Reno City Council repealed the city’s shade ordinance in 2019. Image: Bob Conrad / THIS IS RENO, Aug. 16, 2022.

“They knew they wanted to get rid of the protection against tall buildings downtown because that’s what a shading ordinance is…” she added. “They knew they wanted to get rid of that.”

Doyle also said the meeting notice was not clear or complete under Nevada’s open meeting law requirements.

“That agenda item should have said we’re trying to get rid of this for this reason,” she explained. “It’s not enough for an agenda item that affects a large region, and that if the language had been more clear about what they knew they intended to do, you would have … seen more people at that first planning commission meeting [and] more people at that first city council meeting.”

City denies wrongdoing

City attorney Jonathan Shipman accused the plaintiffs of finding fault with the meeting after they did not get their desired result.

“This was not a done deal by any stretch,” he said. “This was … a matter that was out there, and it was publicly debated … at the planning commission, and then later at the city council — vigorously….”

Judge Freeman questioned Shipman.

“If that’s the case, why call Garrett Gordon [who] represents the developer?” he asked. “Is he all of a sudden a legislative expert on legislative ordinances? “

Shipman argued that the city can call on whomever they want during public hearing, and it would not have necessarily been during public comment.

Kimpton Hotel design. Press photo.
Kimpton Hotel design. Press photo.

“It was within the discretion of the city council how to address this issue,” he said. “Now it’s very common that when issues are raised in public comment, those turn into questions to staff, questions to subject matter experts, questions to lobbyists, and that’s what I think we have here.”

He admitted Schieve called upon Gordon to make sure the developer’s perspective was included on the record. Schieve’s ties to developers, particularly developer lobbyist Jessica Sfrerrazza, are disclosed at most council meetings.

“The mayor knew that … this development was coming down and at least wanted to touch on the concerns that were expressed in public comment and to clarify and potentially make sure that that was not being left out of the equation,” Shipman said. “But I think also what you saw there very importantly was council member Reese he reeled it back in [because] he understood that this was not about that particular project per se. 

“They were looking at a policy change for across the city, and they didn’t want that to go off into the weeds on [the Kimpton] project.”

Doyle fired back and accused Shipman of misleading Freeman.

“There was never a proposed change to the shade ordinance for any other section of the city,” she said. “It was always proposed as a change to the downtown regional overlay district.”

If the property owners prevail in their case, the city will have to re-notice the meeting and reconsider the changes to the ordinance.

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