by Terry Burnes

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November 20, 2012
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Lack of transparency an issue in approvals of major projects

The R-C reports that the "Carson Valley Inn unveiled plans ... for an outdoor events center to accommodate everything from concerts with 800 guests to more intimate settings like weddings ..."

It also quotes the County Manager: "The outdoor events area ... is an allowed accessory use to the existing resort facility. Therefore, an administrative review by staff is required, but it is not required to be heard by the board."

So we're going to add an 800-seat amphitheater with nothing more than a staff review. No public hearings or involvement by the planning commission or county commission.

This is reminiscent of Walmart, where the required zoning change was run through in advance as if it were inconsequential, not connected to something like Walmart, despite the county knowing that it would lead to big box retail in an area designated village commercial.

And the planned development regulations approved as part of that had no meaningful requirements at all. Carte blanche. With that, our elected officials washed their hands of further responsibility and said Walmart was an administrative matter.

So what about the CVI amphitheater? The development code defines every use that might conceivably occur in Douglas County. The first step in determining how a use is regulated is to find where it fits into those definitions.

The definition most applicable to this amphitheater says, "'Outdoor recreation, for night use' means an area or facility which offers entertainment ... for a fee, where any portion of the activity takes place outside and includes lighted areas for use after dusk." The CVI amphitheater is unquestionably "outdoor recreation, for night use."

The next step is to determine how that use is treated. In the Tourist Commercial district, where this amphitheater is proposed, "outdoor recreation, night use" requires a use permit, with hearing and approval by the planning commission and appeal to the county commission. That would have been a good place to stop.

But county staff, apparently looking to avoid public hearings, says this is an "accessory use to the existing resort." Section 20.660.150 addresses accessory uses. It says, "A use ... may be an accessory use if the planning director determines that the use is customarily incidental to a main use."

So in this case staff has apparently determined that a one acre, 800-seat outdoor amphitheater is a use "customarily incidental" to a casino.

How many of the dozens of casinos in Northern Nevada, especially the smaller ones, have outdoor amphitheaters? Very few. It's a stretch to say that an amphitheater is "customary" at facilities of this type.

And how is an 800-seat amphitheater "incidental" to what else is there? In zoning that term is reserved for minor outbuildings and trivial uses, not something almost an acre in size that will generate hundreds of vehicle trips, occasional overflow parking, significant noise and possible wetland impacts.

Besides, the accessory use regulations also say, "... an accessory use must comply with all regulations applicable to the main use." And in this case the main use requires a use permit.

The main use at CVI is a casino. Casinos in the TC district require a use permit, which CVI has. When you expand something subject to a use permit, say by adding an 800-seat amphitheater, the existing use permit must be amended or a new one issued.

Our gaming district regulations, which also apply to CVI, give us yet more guidance. "A public hearing by the planning commission and board is required for a major revision ... which involves expansion or intensification of development ... "

Staff apparently feels it has discretion to exempt this project from a use permit. It clearly does not.

The requirement of a use permit for casinos and "outdoor recreation, night use" in the TC district is unambiguous. The misapplied accessory use regulations say "... an accessory use must comply with all regulations applicable to the main use," in this case a casino, which requires a use permit. And this project is clearly a major revision requiring hearings under the GD regulations, as it "... involves expansion ... of development."

The real issue is whether staff is proceeding on its own or doing what our elected officials expect of it. Those officials are either demanding this approach or condoning it, neither of which is good.

If this amphitheater makes sense it will withstand a bit of public scrutiny. So why does the cCounty twist itself into a pretzel to limit public review? Is it because there are issues that the county would prefer remain unexplored? Traffic, parking, noise, wetland impacts? And that properly evaluating those issues in a hearing process might expose problems? Or does it just want to cut the public out of the process?

And why are we exercising discretion (that we don't have) in favor of the applicant by limiting public review, instead of in favor of the community by expanding it? Residents will be affected by the impacts of this project and would likely appreciate an opportunity to better understand those and influence the outcome. Residents in Winhaven, Minden Village and across 395 from CVI should be especially concerned.

How we conduct government business says a lot about who we are as a community. The right way to do this is through public hearings leading to enforceable permit conditions designed to avoid or reduce project impacts, not by passing it off to staff for a cursory review, largely out of sight, in contravention of the plain intent of our regulations.

Our elected officials, the ones supposedly in charge here, could easily insist on the right approach. I hope they will.

Otherwise we'll be left to wonder where we're headed. If permits for Walmart and this amphitheater don't require hearings, what would? And are those we elect simply turning over the future here to staff, condoning decisions that ignore the rules and show more concern for commercial interests than the larger community that our elected officials represent? I hope not.

Terry Burnes is a Gardnerville resident and retired Bay Area planner.

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The Record Courier Updated Nov 20, 2012 05:43PM Published Nov 20, 2012 05:42PM Copyright 2012 The Record Courier. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.