Walking the line: Balancing Reno’s need for housing with environmental preservation isn’t a perfect science
By the numbers
Washoe County population by decade, and percent increase from 1970:
1980: 193,620 (60%)
1990: 256,330 (112%)
2000: 341,401 (182%)
2010: 422,000 (249%)
2017: 460,580 (280%)
2032: 560,000 (363%)*
(*estimated) Source: U.S. Census Bureau
RENO, Nev. — As the population of Northern Nevada continues to swell, regional planners and elected officials walk a fine line between meeting the area’s strong demand for new housing and achieving an overarching goal to preserve the natural beauty and lifestyle enjoyed by both longtime residents and newcomers to the Truckee Meadows.
Northern Nevada is an attractive location for both new business and new residents. The hundreds of companies that have landed in Northern Nevada in recent years have spurred hordes of new residents to the region that soaked up much of the area’s available housing.
The boom has spurred an unprecedented wave of new commercial development, but residential development has lagged, resulting in a well-documented housing shortage and run-up in housing prices.
Regional growth has continued for decades. In 1990, there were 256,300 residents in Washoe County, but by 2000, there were more than 341,400 people living here, the U.S. Census Bureau reports. In 2012, when the last Truckee Meadows Regional Plan was drafted, the county’s population stood at a hair under 430,000 residents.
By 2017, the population had risen to more than 460,000 residents, and by 2032, the consensus forecast is that more than 560,000 people will live in the county. That’s a 30 percent increase in residents in just 20 years.
Finding homes for all those people — especially in environmentally sensitive areas — is a delicate balancing act between satisfying the region’s pressing demand for new housing with preventing additional sprawl and preserving the environment of the Truckee Meadows and surrounding areas.
‘It is kind of an evolution’
Developing with an eye toward preservation isn’t a perfect science, but it’s something that’s improved with each generation, says Arlo Stockham, director of community development for the city of Reno.
As general rule, Stockham says, newer developments have more environmental protection built into them.
“Look back say 40 years, or at the Old Southwest and inside the McCarrran ring,” he says. “Most of that was platted with very little open space, and natural drainage and hillsides were part of the lots sold to homeowners. Fast forward 20 years, and take Caughlin Ranch as an example — you see areas that aren’t developed, such as common areas and open spaces.
“It is kind of an evolution. Each project has done more than prior generations, and it continues to be a balancing act.”
The Truckee Meadows Services Area, which includes all of Reno, Sparks and developed or developing portions of unincorporated Washoe County, establishes the regions slated for development and growth over the longer horizon and those areas not slated for urbanization and growth, if ever.
The boundaries were developed and debated based in large part on environmental considerations, as well as transportation, infrastructure and the economic needs of the community, Stockham says.
Environmentally sensitive areas — the flanks of Peavine Mountain and Mount Rose, for instance — are outside boundary lines and can’t be develop below 5-acre lots. Also, the majority of land outside the boundary cannot have any development that requires urban services such as sewer and water.
Slopes greater than 30 percent can’t be developed, while within Reno city limits there are addition regulations on slopes that are gentler, between 15 and 30 percent, as well as regulations dealing with major drainage ways to provide protection of drainage-way corridors with open space of new developments.
A big part of the regional preservation strategy has been to encourage and facilitate infill development within existing urbanized areas since infill projects and the revitalization of existing developed areas make the most of the urban footprint already established, Stockham says.
“Downtown Reno has been developed for more than 100 years, and adding another 1,000 residents has very little impact on the environment compared to adding 1,000 homes next to Somersett, for example,” Stockham says. “On a regional scale, it’s about directing growth toward less impactful areas and imposing regulatory limits in more environmentally sensitive areas.”
A big part of a planner’s job is to interface between the economy and the environment, he adds. While most people want a nice place to live, they also love wildlife and nature. Planners can’t always deliver both, but by working together there can be wins for all sides.
Stockham points to new communities in the southeast, such as those in the Damonte Ranch area, where expansive open spaces and greenway corridors are interwoven with residential communities. Planners have improved on achieving that sought-after balance, he says.
“The Truckee Meadows Services Area is a way of focusing new development on areas that have already been developed and already have habitat impact,” Stockham says. “It doesn’t work out perfectly, but that is the approach this community has taken, and good arguments can be taken on both sides of the subject.”
Projects with long-term planning
Don Tatro, executive director of the Builders Association of Northern Nevada, is one of the region’s most vocal advocates regarding the need for new homes in the Truckee Meadows and outlying communities.
According to a HUD report that came out late last year, the region’s housing demand was approximately 7,000 new single-family homes through 2021 — yet only about 20 percent of that number was under construction.
Large planned communities such as Daybreak in south Reno, Stonegate in Cold Springs and Prado Ranch in Lemmon Valley address these concerns, Tatro says, and developers have proposed communities that incorporate the natural environment in their master plans.
“We are growing, and we need to get projects approved that have long-term planning in mind and that meet the need for new housing,” he says. “These are great environments we are building in, and there will be significant impact in the housing market here if we don’t keep these projects coming forward.
“We don’t have much more easy land to develop,” he adds. “These projects have sound engineering and planning, and as a community we need these projects. We have to work together rather than try to appease the small few who say that they have found paradise and don’t want to let anyone else in.”
Advances in technology that produce detailed flood maps and model traffic flow patterns and related data have made it easier for developers, engineering and planners to propose communities that protect and enhance environmentally sensitive areas, Tatro adds.
Since 1970, the region’s population has swelled from a mere 121,000 residents to more than 460,500, a 280 percent jump.
While many people moved here to avoid troublesome issues that plague larger cities — such as massive sprawl that dominates the Sacramento region, or the severe overcrowding found throughout the Greater Bay Area — those issues also have become a part of this area’s DNA as Reno-Sparks continues to expand its urban footprint.
Is there an appropriate time to close the door, Tatro asks?
“Some people don’t want any growth, and that is not feasible,” he says. “We averaged 3,000 single-family new home permits annually since 1983, and we are well below that average the last three years at barely over 2,000. Larger employers have moved in, and that’s increased the desire to move here.
“You can’t go to ribbon cuttings for jobs unless you also are going to groundbreakings for housing. If those two things don’t balance out we will have significant problems.”
Rob Sabo a Reno-based freelance writer and former reporter for the Northern Nevada Business View.
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