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County master plan changes tabled

, staff writer

Douglas County commissioners agreed to table changes to the master plan after nearly four hours of public testimony that included passionate debate over the future of growth and development in the Carson Valley.

In a packed courtroom whose crowd spilled out into the hallways, commissioners heard testimony Thursday from about a dozen residents who asked commissioners to postpone a decision on master plan amendments intended to create density bonuses allowing developers to build more homes if they transfer rights from ranch land.

In the master plan, Douglas County “made a commitment to minimal development,” said Susan Southwick, a former planning commissioner.

“This is a big issue. We should take the communities into account and solicit input,” Southwick said.

County planners have recommended changes to the transfer of development rights program. The TDR program encourages developers to build homes on property designed for higher density while leaving rural areas open.

County planners maintain the current TDR program is not working and adjustments are needed to draw participants. Planners want to amend the master plan to offer more incentives in the form of “density bonuses” to developers who take advantage of the program.

Critics of the changes – many of them wearing “Save our Master Plan” stickers – argued that even though land would be set aside for open space, density bonuses encourage more growth.

Commissioners agreed to extend public comment periods so residents have an opportunity to study the proposals. They also agreed to hold a joint session with the county planning commission March 8 and will look into contracting an expert who deals with TDR issues.

Commissioner Steve Weissinger said he’s willing to wait for months if that’s what it would take for an agreement.

“There won’t be a rush to judgment,” Weissinger said. “It’s time we do something for the ranchers of this Valley that works.”

Commission Chairman Bernie Curtis said the changes are not meant to undermine the master plan, but to make the TDR program more workable.

“We have all worked on the master plan. We are not out to destroy the master plan, we are out there to make it the best we can,” Curtis said.

Commissioner Don Miner said his colleagues have always been committed to protecting open space, and while there are no easy answers, public discussion “will get us where we want to be.”

Last month residents concerned about the proposed changes began to mobilize to bring the matter to the public’s attention. They argued too few public hearings on the changes were held and that earlier 5-year master plan workshops did not outline the proposed changes.

Attorney Bill Shaw and others said concerns about growth are a result of the number of projects that have been approved over the past 10 years.

With a population that has increased to 43,000, a 56 percent increase over the past 10 years, according to county statistics, residents have a right to be concerned with growth, Shaw said.

He argued that, while allowing development outside the master plan in the form of amendments may look good from the start, the long term affects are negative.

“You can never avoid the sex appeal of planning project by project. I would say that planning by principle, there is no short-term appeal,” Shaw said. “But 10 years later, when all is said and done, you are going to look around and say ‘what happened?'”

Others, like Jim Slade of Gardnerville, said more growth would tax the region’s water supply.

“Do we build until we run out of water? We need more study to determine what our water resources can sustain,” Slade said.

Engineer Rob Anderson agreed with the precepts of the master plan, saying he defends the original design of it because it is beneficial to those wishing to preserve open space.

On the other hand, Anderson said the TDR program needs an overhaul to make it work so ranch owners can get the full value for their land under the program.

Ranchers have argued they would be willing to try a TDR program to save their land from development, but the incentive is not there because developers would pay more money for the property if they chose to sell their land.

“We have isolated pieces of property and have said we will use TDRs to get there,” Anderson said. “But there is a disparaging difference in the value.”