Robert Perea, The Fernley Reporter
A local developer has approached the city of Fernley about the possibility of acquiring 1,240 acres of public land available to the city, but several members of the city council want assurances that the project would bring jobs to the city before entering into any agreements.
After more than two hours of debate and indecision by some council members, the council voted 4-1 to continue discussions with Artisan Communities that would specifically address what potential economic development, including jobs, the project might bring.
Artisan Homes approached the city requesting to purchase two parcels totaling about 1,240 acres identified in the lands bill.
Harvey Whittemore, an Associate with Abbey, Stubbs & Ford, LLC and principal in the Whittemore Group, representing Artisan Homes, said the developer is offering to pay all the costs necessary, including environmental assessments and surveys, that would allow the city to determine what it wants to do with the property.
Whittemore said Artisan Homes is proposing to place $25,000 in a trust account to start that process.
“We’re asking, can we start the process to find out what it is that the city wants on long term basis?”
But several council members initially balked at the proposal.
Council member Shari Whalen and Mayor Roy Edgington both opposed any development that would bring residential development to the city without providing jobs.
“And by jobs, I don’t mean construction jobs that are done and then gone,” Edgington said. “I mean jobs where someone can make a house payment.”
Whalen said she didn’t realize negotiations had advance to the point of opening a trust account.
“I was not under the impression that we were this far along,” Whalen said. “I feel apprehensive about a trust account when there’s so many questions to be answered. I’m definitely not ready for a trust account.”
Councilwoman Sue Seidl was hesitant to support the proposal, saying it was premature, because the city hasn’t yet completed updating its land use master plan. City planner Tim Thompson said he expects the master plan to be completed around the middle of this year.
“We’ve not yet identified which parcels we need for municipal uses,” Seidl said, saying the city needs to reach out to its other partners, including the Lyon County School District, to identify land the city might want to use for municipal purposes.
“If we’re going to build schools, this is the chance to identify those parcels and set them aside,” Seidl said.
With other members of the council saying they can’t support a residential project that didn’t include a plan to bring jobs to Fernley, councilman Dan McCassie McCassie argued that businesses and services follow population growth comes businesses and services. He also argued that one reason that more business and industry hasn’t come to Fernley is because the city doesn’t offer a large enough workforce.
“We don’t have the quality work force here because we don’t have the population, McCassie said.
Whittemore, who was involved in the development of Wingfield Springs in Sparks, said all of the same questions the Fernley council members were asking were raised and answered during that project. However, Fernley city planner Tim Thompson, who was a planner for the City of Sparks at that time, pointed out that the Kiley Ranch development in Wingfield Springs did not create jobs, despite being marketed as a place to live, work and play. Most of the people who’ve moved there, Thompson said, work elsewhere, in downtown or South Reno.
“All we can do is try set that land aside, but there is no guarantee jobs will come,” Thompson said. “At Kiley Ranch you can live and play there, but not work there yet.”
Whalen also disputed the notion that jobs will automatically follow population growth, saying the population explosion Fernley had in the early 2000s didn’t bring jobs.
“When I went to school here, there were like 200 kids in that high school, and now there’s like 1,000 kilds in that high school and we have one more pizza place,” Whalen said. “Our population and our businesses, jobs, retail, commercial, it doesn’t grow proportionally.”
Whalen further argued that what Fernley needs is jobs that attract residents who will work in Fernley, and not residential development that houses people who commute out of town to work. She said Fernley needs to move away from being a bedroom community and build a stronger sense of community with residents who work in the city.
“What is the economic development benefit to Fernley to have a giant residential subdivision here?” Whalen asked. “Having more beds here and not jobs here is the opposite of what we need.”
“That is a question that’s three steps down the road,” Whittemore responded.
Whittemore said he understands the city’s desire for economic development, and he said his first advice to Artisan after he was approached about representing the project was that a residential only project that didn’t bring economic development to the city would not meet the city’s needs.
“One of the proposals was to identify additional land south of the canal to the east of Highway 95A for a major economic development component,” Whittemore said. “My attempt to suggest that the portion of land which is identified as the 1,240 acres as a residential component, that standing alone, in my judgment, would not meet your requirements under NRS 268 to be an economic development proposal.”
Whittemore said Artisan’s proposal is to expand the number of acres that would be the subject of the acquisition program on behalf of the city and to develop the economic component in conversations with the city to determine what type of economic development program would work.
That, he said, necessitates the trust account that the council balked at.
“But we can’t, we being the City of Fernley, Artisan and the community, move in that direction at all until someone funds the necessary work to determine what it is that the city wants,” Whittemore said. “If I were a citizen of Fernley, I would say if someone could get us land for free that is risk free for the city, for municipal purposes, for schools or what have you, it would seem to me to be a very good deal.”
He said residential component of the project is what makes Artisan willing to fund the studies to create those opportunities at no risk to the city.
“What you’re really doing is taking the babyist of baby steps, to start that process because you cannot prejudge any of these items at this points,” he said.
But the council continued to waver, and a motion by Seidl to proceed with the conveyance process for Federal Land for economic development purposes by Artisan Homes failed, with Seidl and Fran McKay in favor, and Lau, McCassie and Whalen opposed.
After further discussion, Whalen’s motion to continue with specific discussions about the economic development portion of the project passed 4-1.
Whittemore said while the project is time sensitive since Artisan has been waiting since July, the parties could continue discussions and come back in the next 30 days with some answers that would satisfy the city’s concerns and lay out a direction for the council.
The Fernley Economic Self-Determination Act
The Fernley Economic Self-Determination Act sponsored by U.S. Sen. Dean Heller was introduced Feb. 3, 2014, but languished in committee until it was packaged with several other Nevada lands bills into an omnibus bill. It was then attached as a rider on the National Defense Authorization Act and approved by Congress on Dec. 19, 2014 and signed into law by President Barack Obama the same day.
The bill gives the city of Fernley the opportunity to purchase up to 9,779 acres of Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation lands within the city boundaries at fair market value for multi-use development.
The land is scattered in multiple parcels throughout the city limits, which borders Washoe, Storey and Churchill counties and extends south of Damon’s Curve, north of Silver Springs.
When it incorporated, the city adopted what had been the boundaries of the township of Fernley.
Some parcels are along Main Street, Farm District Road and U.S. 95A, as well as several south of the airport and race track.
When the bill was passed, the council directed Hooper, who was then serving as acting city manager, to begin developing a plan to identify which parcels the city was interested in acquiring. At that time, Hooper said part of the process would be identifying which parcels would be used for public utility, such as parks or city facilities, and which would be used for economic development.