Column: Residents go to bat for historic Genoa, Glenbrook

Groups of homeowners in two of Nevada's oldest settlements, Genoa and Glenbrook, have banded together to oppose unwanted development and so far, they're winning. This is good news for all of us who care about Nevada's unique historic heritage and the ecology of the Tahoe Basin.

Nevertheless, we must remain vigilant to assure that rich and powerful developers and lobbyists don't use their money and influence to crush the public interest behind closed doors.

In the first case, the Support Historic Genoa organization has won a preliminary legal victory in its battle to prevent Southern California developer Betty Kanelos from building a two-story hotel and retail complex in downtown Genoa. And in the second case, the Glenbrook Homeowners Association is fighting a proposal by three wealthy property owners to build a large pier in pristine Glenbrook Bay.

In a Sept. 27 decision, Douglas County District Judge David Gamble ruled against the county, stating that the size of the proposed building can and should be considered in deciding whether to approve the project; the Genoa Historic District Commission had already rejected the Kanelos project as "incongruous."

Judge Gamble ordered the county to send the application back to the GHDC for a final decision on whether a proposed 12,280-square-foot building is consistent with Genoa's historic character. However, Douglas County District Attorney Scott Doyle intends to appeal Judge Gamble's decision to the Nevada Supreme Court.

Earlier, Doyle told the county commission that size couldn't be considered as a factor in reviewing the Kanelos application. But after commissioners overruled the GHDC and approved her project, a group of longtime residents formed Support Historic Genoa and took the county to court.

The group's chairman, John Henningsen, noted that the proposed building would be 1.5 times the size of the new firehouse, 2.5 times larger than the Genoa Courthouse Museum and 10 times bigger than the adjacent Genoa Community Church. Henningsen said Genoa's historic integrity was at stake and that historic preservation groups throughout the country would be watching this case.

Ms. Kanelos said she needs a large building in order to make her commercial project profitable. In this case, however, I think local decision-makers should put history above profit and deny her application. The choice is clear and if they approve her project, the next thing we'll see in that area is a huge gondola running between condo developments at the top of Kingsbury Grade and historic Walley's Hot Springs. You read it here first.

Meanwhile, at Glenbrook, three property owners - high-powered casino lobbyist Harvey Whittemore, wealthy Las Vegas liquor distributor Larry Ruvo (who hosted GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush last summer) and Reno casino owner Don Carano - applied to the Tahoe Regional Planning Commission for permission to build a new 300-foot-long pier approximately 150 feet south of the existing community pier.

The Glenbrook Homeowners Association opposed their application for ecological and scenic reasons and the battle was joined.

In mid-August, after completing a detailed study of the project, the TRPA staff recommended denial of the application on three grounds: (1) that the applicants haven't been able to establish that their proposed pier wouldn't illegally interfere with a recreational easement held by the Homeowners Association, (2) that the proposed pier shouldn't be recognized as multiple-use and, therefore, cannot be approved and (3) that the proposed pier will have "unmitigated scenic impacts." Clear enough? I think so.

Meeting shortly thereafter, the California and Nevada politicians who sit on the unelected TRPA Board waffled and urged the Homeowners Association to negotiate a solution with Carano, Ruvo and Whittemore, who offered to withdraw their pier application if the Association would allow them to build a 75-foot-long attachment to the community pier that would accommodate two large boat lifts.

"I'm never comfortable with this kind of process in a public meeting but to get to ... the right result, it's the right thing to do," said board member Brian Sandoval, a former state legislator who is chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission. But I think Sandoval should have recused himself on a matter involving a state gaming licensee and lobbyist.

Homeowners Association president Doug Jones told me last week that although negotiations are continuing, his organization insists on full disclosure regarding the real purpose of the proposed boat lifts.

"We fear that they want to establish a private entertainment center at the old Glenbrook rodeo grounds, which will attract 3,000 additional visitors during the summer months," said Jones. Let's call it "Lobbyland."

"If they hold to their current position, I'm very pessimistic," Jones added. "In any case, any proposed solution would be subject to approval by 75 percent of the homeowners." Of course the preferred solution would be for the TRPA Board to reject the pier proposal because as long as it remains alive, the well-connected applicants could attempt - as they did in 1999 - to slip a bill through the 2001 Nevada Legislature allowing them to bypass the Homeowners Association. The key figure in that maneuver would be, as he was in 1999, state Sen. Mark James (R-Las Vegas), a good friend of the gaming industry.

In both cases, let's hope that local politicians have enough political courage to say "No" to well-financed special interests. That's the only way to preserve the irreplaceable historic heritage of Genoa and Glenbrook and the ecological purity and scenic beauty of Lake Tahoe.

(Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.)


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