Late Wednesday the Reno City Council voted to deny the Mortensen Ranch development for the second time. This is a large development of 676 homes on 955 acres in Verdi on the west side of the Somersett development. The development had been considered and denied by the city before (1/26/2020). Following the earlier denial, the developer went to court with a petition for judicial review. This is a process in which the judge reviews documents describing the city’s decision with the petitioner claiming that the city acted “in an arbitrary and capricious” manner. As a rule, the courts are loathe to rule against the city or county. In this case, the Judge Kathleen Drakulich ruled in favor of the petitioner and ordered the city to reconsider the project specifically in terms of the Mortensen-Garson Overlay District (MGOD). Technically, the court vacated the city council’s decision to uphold the decision by the Reno Planning Commission to deny the project. The city did reconsider and Wednesday voted to deny the project again by a vote of 6-1.
It should be noted that the Drakulich family owns a large-scale development business. Judge Drakulich is the aunt of prominent developer J D Drakulich who ran unsuccessfully for city council in 2020. Her statement that the record “demonstrates both the Planning Commission’s and City Council’s animosity toward the MGOD” indicates a bias in her judgement. Given the family interest in promoting development, one might imagine that Judge Drakulich would have recused herself from this case.
Public Comment Voicemail ( In addition, there was one letter of support received along with 56 letters in opposition and 15 letters of concern)
- The new development is not compliant with the MGOD guidelines and the associated handbook. in that it does not consider the cumulative effects of recent changes to the plan since the earlier review.
- Fifteen of the new homes will be built on a ridgeline in violation of the MGOD guidelines.
- Easements for emergency exit routes have not been secured.
- Some of the development will be in areas identified as open space (“green areas”) in the City of Reno Community Development Map.
- Native American artifacts are likely to be disturbed by this development.
- Bike and OHV trails should be maintained where possible and trail access should be part of the development plan.
City Attorney, Karl Hall gave a summary and made the point that the case will go back to Judge Drakulich whatever the city decides.
Bill McKean (city attorney) and Angela Fuss (Planning Manager) gave a presentation to the council.
- The “remand” order is not really the end of the legal process.
- The MGOD overlay supersedes the regular city zoning requirements in cases where they diverge.
- The MGOD specifies certain ridgelines that can have only limited grading or building.
- The MGOD specifies limited development on hillsides, but does not prohibit it.
- The MGOD requires a plan for parks and trails on the property.
- The developer proposed to reduce the number of homes to 632 removing many of the homes that were on ridgelines.
- The developer will add an emergency evacuation route on the north (uphill) end of the property that goes through The Cliffs development.
Fred Altmann gave a presentation on the behalf of the developer. He made the following points.
- He asserts that the developer met with many people over the last year and made many concessions and changes.
- The property will be developed in 8 phases for different geographical clusters he calls pods.
- He would like to work with 5 or 6 area builders to get the entire project built within 5 years.
The city originally denied the developer’s appeal because it would require a master plan amendment or zoning change which was not included. This is required because the zoning shown in the MGOD is not the same as what the developer is proposing. Also, the development plan was found not in compliance with Nevada statutes.
Councilmember Jardon asked staff about the easements for an evacuation route. Fuss replied that this should be included in the conditions for approval of the final map.
Councilmember Reese asked about the definitions of prominent ridgelines and rock outcroppings in the MGOD. Fuss replied that they are not very clearly defined. Reese is concerned about 20 lots situated on some of the steeper slopes. Fuss concurred that some of the lots are not compliant with the master plan since they are steeper than 30%. She said that the MGOD does not prohibit building in steep areas.
Councilmember Duerr noted that the MGOD document makes multiple references to community outreach and cooperative planning. There is also a reference to wildlife corridors. Fuss replied that the developer presented the plan at both the Neighborhood Advisory Board (NAB, Reno) and the Citizen’s Advisory Board (CAB, Washoe) which fulfilled the outreach requirement. Fuss went on to say that “cooperative planning” referred to the city and county cooperating on plans that lie on the city/county boundary. The cooperation is between the planning departments. The wildlife corridors typically follow the drainage ways. These were identified to the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) which were submitted with the project.
Councilmember Brekhus asked if the original Mortensen-Garson settlement had expired. Fuss said that it had. The MGOD is now in the development code.
Councilmember Jardon would like to see the buffer between these lots and the Somersett neighborhood increased to 150 feet. The developer said the buffer was at least 60 feet, but was not willing to increase it.
Duerr noticed that there were some home lots in areas that had been designated open space. Fuss replied that the newer plan takes into account natural features (“constraints”) at a detail level where construction could not occur. Duerr thinks that the construction should not occur outside the areas agreed to in the original MGOD. Fuss pointed out that the original MGOD handbook included “the exact zoning boundaries will be determined at the time of tentative map.” Duerr was not satisfied. She is also concerned about the homes to be built on slopes of 30% or more. While this is not prohibited, she thinks it is a bad principle. Duerr asked why the wildlife corridors are not already defined in the tentative map. Fuss said that these had been defined, but they have not yet received a mitigation plan from NDOW. Duerr is also concerned about traffic. Fuss replied that with each iteration of the plan, the developer has provided a traffic study that indicates that the traffic will not exceed service level “C”. Beyond this, Duerr is also concerned about freeway access (I-80) at this location. Fuss replied that no improvements for freeway access are included or required.
Brekhus is concerned about the local street network. One street that the development will use is not identified on the master plan. She asked about the right of way width for the streets that Reno will need to maintain. Fuss answered that the roads could be as narrow as 46′ but that these meet the city code requirements. Brekhus is concerned about the cost to the city to maintain roads in such rugged terrain. She asked how many feet of these roads would require retaining walls which would also need to be maintained. Fuss didn’t know.
Councilmember Reese asked what would happen if Native American remains or artifacts were found on the site. Fuss said that a plan had been submitted identifying where remains might be found. Since this is private property, there is no legal requirement regarding such remains. Reese asked Tray Palmer (Fire Marshall, RFD) if these homes will require sprinklers. Palmer said the nearest fire station would be number 11 at Sharlands and Mae Anne. Once the upper fire-access road is built, the Somersett station (#19) would be the closest. This is a little suspect since the Somersett station is presently only staffed for medical emergencies. The new homes would require sprinklers until the upper access road is completed.
Mayor Schieve is concerned about the fire fighting access. She asked Palmer if the topography is part of the fire-safety review of the project. Palmer said that topography is a big consideration. He said that the state will require a vegetation management plan since this is an instance of a wildland/urban interface. The maximum grade of a roadway for fire engine access is 10% or 12% for south facing slope.
Councilmember Weber asked if Jardon would share her secondary considerations that she didn’t raise since the lack of a 150′ setback makes the project unacceptable. Jardon said she’d like to see a “stakeholder” review of the final map to confirm that the conditions and expectations are reflected in it. The public trails should be recorded with easements. Jardon thinks all the homes should get sprinklers since the staffing of station 19 for fire fighting is still speculative. In addition, if historic remains or artifacts are discovered, all work in the area must cease. The emergency access road from the north would be a requirement before any homes are occupied.
Duerr pressed Fuss for more details about the wildlife corridors. In addition, Duerr expressed concern that Somersett is subject to strong earthquakes. She asked if there were any special standards for building in a seismically active area. Fuss said that lots need to be 50′ offset from an active fault, but that there are no special construction requirements. The developer will need to submit a formal geo-tech report with their final map.
Tom Gallagher (representing the developer) indicated that the developer would be willing to meet the 150′ setback from the Somersett property line if they could relocate the lots that were displaced by this change. The developers requested a 20 minute break to discuss the new conditions with the owner (Stan Lucas, San Diego). Afterwards, Altman summarized the owner’s positions.
- Owner agrees to increase the setback from Somersett to 150′.
- The developer will build the north emergency access road.
- All the new homes will be built with sprinkler systems until station 19 is fully manned and can respond to fires. The developer is anxious about spending the additional $1600 per home if they can avoid it. Part of the issue is that Reno does not know when the city can afford to keep a fire engine company at station 19. Brekhus thinks the requirement for sprinklers in such a situation should not be an issue.
- Open space areas will be deed restricted prior to submission of the final map.
- HIking trails will be recorded with a public-access easement.
- The developer will contribute $1,000 per home to the Reno Land Trust to be used for affordable housing projects.
- The developer will comply with all state historical preservation laws regarding artifacts on remains discovered on the property (NRS 383.170).
- The developer is hesitant to include stakeholders in the final-map review process hosted by city staff. Jardon pointed out that there have been projects in the past where the conditions negotiated for the tentative map were not reflected in the final map. This is a step the staff has added to projects in the Verdi area. Altman is concerned that this condition will spook potential lenders. He is adamant that citizens not be included in a meeting to review the final map. His position does raise questions as to the integrity of the final map they plan to provide. Fuss will write the condition to show that the staff will make the determination whether conditions are met.
Brekhus expressed concern over conditions that are being written “on the fly” during the meeting.
Closing Public Comment Voicemails (seven were received in opposition)
- Since the MGOD handbook has expired, planning reverts to existing city planning and codes. The project is not consistent with the handbook and it requires cooperative planning.
- Concern about the safety of powerlines that traverse the Mortensen Ranch property and terminate at the Somersett property.
- Concern about contamination of the Truckee River watershed from development on the slopes.
- Many of the ridgelines are not identified and should be protected.
- Area wildlife is already under stress from development.
- The development will build homes in area designated as open space.
- The number of homes is too great given the characteristics of the property.
Jardon moved to approve the project (overturning the Planning Commission denial) with the new conditions defined during the meeting. Weber seconded the motion. Brekhus says the city is unable to provide adequate fire protection especially given the fast-paced fires that could occur on these slopes. She also sees problems related to neighborhood traffic and grading. She finds that the steep roads with retaining walls place an undue burden on the city for long-term maintenance. Duerr can’t support building on 30% slopes anywhere. Schieve is concerned about the wildfire hazard and the problem of emergency evacuation. The recent fire at Caughlin Ranch illustrated the risk of fire and the difficulty of evacuation. The motion failed with only Jardon and Weber supporting. Reese moved to affirm the decision of the Reno Planning Commission to deny the project. This was supported by all but Weber.
The review of this development project by the city council took 3 hours.