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County: Commissioners approve new master plan

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Washoe County’s new master plan took three years to complete and was approved Tuesday by the Board of County Commissioners. Envision Washoe 2040 is a nearly 20-year plan for everything from housing and land use to transportation, public services and facilities, conservation and cultural resources, and regional coordination. 

The master plan applies to all areas of unincorporated Washoe County—those parts not within Reno or Sparks city limits—except for the Lake Tahoe area which has its own master plan.

Eric Young, a senior planner for the county, said three years, more than a dozen public meetings, and hundreds of comments and survey responses went into the creation of the plan, which took 18 documents and merged them into one. It includes references to other regional plans, he said, along with requirements set by state law.

The plan includes key issues and priorities for separate planning areas—a feature Young said his team spent a year developing. Each planning area was reviewed for specific elements that set it apart from other areas within the county and make it deserving of a separate discussion. 

The county’s use of area-specific planning aligns with recommendations recently provided to the City of Reno by housing expert Shane Phillips, who recommended neighborhood-specific plans for housing and neighborhood development. 

The inclusion of the area plans and zoning designations within the master plan removes some of the strife Young said was caused by separate Character Management Areas (CMA), the old master plan that included zoning and development codes, and the many amendments made to that plan. 

“I feel like someone slipped an edible in my lunch. We’re finally on the same page. This is unbelievable.– Washoe County Commissioner Mike Clark

He acknowledged that some residents have expressed concerns that the removal of the CMAs from county planning has removed protections for some property owners. That isn’t the case, he said.

“It’s a clear concise language about what the community expects in their neighborhood,” Young said. “So even though there is a sense that protections have been removed, it’s a much more clear and accessible process that we’re proposing that gives the planning commission the ability to make a decision based on real information and not feelings.”

Washoe County Commissioner Jeanne Herman.
Washoe County Commissioner Jeanne Herman.

District Attorney Nate Edwards said the former master plan with its one map system—combining zoning code and master planning into one document—created numerous amendments and edits to the master plan that created confusion and challenges in interpreting the details.

“It’s like having a spare bedroom in your house; it’s a great idea, right?” he said. “But what ends up happening is that’s where the exercise bike goes, and then that’s where the ironing board goes, and then that’s where the boxes go. And after a while nobody even goes in the spare bedroom. It’s just a pile of stuff you didn’t know where else to put. That’s what happened with the master plan under the one map system.”

Commissioner Jeanne Herman agreed that a lot of the development challenges the county has faced in recent years are the result of the one map system, but said she was wary about the removal of the CMAs. 

“I’m not a planner … but I will be concerned until I see this all come about and going the right way,” she said.

Commission Chair Alexis Hill said she was grateful for the changes.

Washoe County Commissioner Alexis Hill. Image: Washoe County.
Washoe County Commissioner Alexis Hill. Image: Washoe County.

“I think this will be a better document to guide us through the process,” she said. “We’ve had those discussions of folks on both sides using the same part of the chapter to argue pro and against a development, and it’s a very difficult position for anyone to be in.”

A chapter on how portions of the plan will be executed was also added, Young said.

“Chapter 3 is new and is really quite exciting to us because it’s something that we knew we’ve needed to do,” Young said. “A master plan really needs some guidance on how are we going to do this, how are we going to make this happen. This is a dedicated chapter that talks about what are some … actions that we could actually take in order to implement this plan that we are laying out.”

The actions include development code revisions, capital projects, programs and resources, and the development of plans, studies and policies. 

Updates to county code reviewed

Action based on the plan came immediately following Young’s presentation with a first hearing and review of proposed updates to Washoe County Code. The updates would add language to the code that, over the years, has been amended into the county’s master plan. Many of those amendments, county staff said, were actually code-related.

With the former master plan being retired and replaced, Young said that without the amendments some existing zoning designations would retire along with the old master plan. 

Some of the updates included in Tuesday’s review were land-use tables that were transferred directly from the past master plan into the code. Other updates included transferring policies into the code—which for years have been listed as conditions on development approvals because they weren’t listed as rules in the code. 

“In our early days of stakeholder outreach, one of our techniques was to ask what jokes do people tell about Washoe County when we’re not in the room,” Young said, adding that it was a great way to get information. “The most valuable thing we heard was that we’re teased quite a bit for conditioning everything. There were just pages and pages of conditions.” 

He was adamant, however, that policies formerly included in CMAs and the last master plan were transferred with no changes to be adopted into county code.

“I want to reiterate that there were no changes,” Young said, following public comment and concerns expressed by Commissioner Herman that changes were being made to code without community review. 

A second reading of the updates is scheduled for Dec. 12. 

Priorities set for action on new master plan

County staff outlined, and commissioners approved, a handful of priorities recommended for action based on the new master plan, with affordable housing initiatives topping the list. Other priorities suggested include revising the public noticing process, the Tahoe Area Plan, Warm Springs groundwater rights dedications, and creating a dashboard to measure plan achievements. 

Washoe County Commissioner Clara Andriola.
Washoe County Commissioner Clara Andriola.

Following multiple public comments regarding the area’s equine community, Commissioner Clara Andriola asked that code updates related to this group be included in the priorities. 

Commissioner Hill said she wanted to ensure progress was made on updates related to the equine community, but said she wouldn’t rate it as important as county-wide affordable housing initiatives. She asked if the work on this issue could be done in parallel with other priorities. 

Andriola said she appreciated commission support for the issue, and said she wanted to see stakeholder meetings on the issue begin now, so potential changes could come back sooner. 

“Coming back and just doing a presentation to me—I think the stakeholder piece is an important piece, in terms of time,” she said. 

The conversation stopped there, with DA Edwards advising that going into more detail and direction on those updates hadn’t been agendized. A request for more review on equine-related codes had been made earlier in the meeting, so county staff already had direction to move ahead on the issue.

Commissioners approve housing affordability efforts

Washoe County Commissioner Mike Clark. Image: Washoe County.
Washoe County Commissioner Mike Clark. Image: Washoe County.

The final item commissioners reviewed as part of the master plan update was to prioritize activities related to improving housing affordability and supply. Some of the strategies were similar to recommendations provided to the City of Reno.

Kelly Mullin, the county’s director of planning and building, said starting with easy-to-accomplish items should be first on the list. She suggested starting with approval of detached or attached accessory dwelling units—also called granny flats—and manufactured homes to areas of unincorporated Washoe County. 

“In the county over the past five years or so we have received requests for about 50 detached accessory dwellings,” she said. “We think there could probably be a little movement on that, probably an upward trend. It’s important to note, for all of those, they were all approved. We received very little public input on those, so it seemed like a ripe area for us to take a look at.” 

She added that this would only apply to areas outside of the Tahoe area and would need to comply with state law. 

Other recommendations included updating standards and permits for multi-family housing such as for duplexes, creating incentives for affordable housing projects and diverse housing types, streamlining permitting, and targeted up-zoning to allow for more dense housing types. 

“I feel like someone slipped an edible in my lunch,” Commissioner Mike Clark said. “We’re finally on the same page. This is unbelievable. This is what my constituents have been talking about forever: streamlining. That’s the way we need to be going.” 

Clark said streamlining permitting will result in more people getting permits for their projects rather than building illegally. This, he said, would result in increased taxable home values and higher tax revenues for the county.  

Housing and building advocates both supported the proposed priorities. 

Commissioners approved unanimously the proposed priorities for housing affordability and supply. 

Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth is a freelance editor and communications professional with more than 20 years’ experience working in marketing, public relations and communications in northern Nevada. Kristen graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in photography and minor in journalism and has a Master of Science in Management and Leadership. She also serves as director of communications for Nevada Cancer Coalition, a statewide nonprofit. Though she now lives in Atlanta, she is a Nevadan for life and uses her three-hour time advantage to get a jump on the morning’s news.

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