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Don’t undermine the master plan by forcing changes

by Ian Harmer

The following was submitted to The Record-Courier as an open letter to Douglas County Commissioners; Dan Holler, County Manager, Douglas County; and Mimi Moss, Planning and Economic Development Manager, Douglas County:

Recent decisions reported in the local media tell us that the senior staff and commissioners of Douglas County have never met a golf course proposal they didn’t like, even if public opinion and the best interests of this and future generations of Carson Valley residents get lost in the rough.

Not long ago, another golf course developer who didn’t want to spend money complying with a master plan requirement to provide public access through any major project adjoining public lands was let off the hook.

Now, there is an unseemly rush to make permanent major revisions to the master plan so that another development combining a golf course with new housing can circumvent existing restrictions.

The master plan was conceived as a long-term strategy that would protect our open spaces far into the future and spell out what type of developments would – and would not – be acceptable.

But this week, it is under attack as pressure mounts to make changes without any of the public input that was considered essential when it was first adopted.

Jeff Dingman’s plan for the Clear Creek Canyon portion of the Schneider Ranch above Jacks Valley poses an even bigger threat to the character of our beautiful neighborhood than the sprawl imposed on the foothills area by his mix of fairways and fancy homes at Genoa Lakes.

The Carson Valley doesn’t need it, the people don’t want it and the U.S. Forest Service is moving as fast an any bureaucracy can to effect a land swap that would transfer Clear Creek Canyon to public ownership and protect it forever.

In his dealings with Jacks Valley residents who are most affected by his proposals, Mr. Dingman has suggested that if the county master plan is not tweaked so that he can build 300 or more homes in Clear Creek instead of the 115 he will have to settle for under the existing regulations, their neighborhood will be worse off.

Give him 300-plus homes instead of a mere 115 and all the extra profit at least 185 more houses will bring in, says Mr. Dingman in effect, and the layout and infrastructure of the development will be tailored to minimize the environmental impact on an area that many people cherish as the jewel of the Carson Valley.

The message to Jacks Valley residents and the commissioners of Douglas County is that the choice here is between a first-class Dingman development and a scaled-down compromise that everyone will ultimately find less acceptable.

In fact, delaying any decision on master plan amendments until all of the public meetings scheduled to discuss it have been held and everyone has had a chance to voice their views will put the spotlight on a third option – one that will keep houses and golfers out of Clear Creek Canyon forever.

Mr. Dingman’s option on the former Schneider Ranch land will be moot if the present owners agree to swap their largely undevelopable forest and agricultural acreage for a parcel of USFS commercial-zoned land along Highway 395 near Target and Home Depot.

Douglas County obviously thinks the swap is a good idea, because it put up $17,000 of public funds toward the cost of an appraisal of the commercial parcel even though it has no ownership interest in it.

The Forest Service has confirmed that the proposed land exchange has been given a “high priority,” and that means that although the swap certainly will not be approved before Thursday’s “gut the master plan” meeting of the commissioners, Mr. Dingman’s counter-proposal is racing against the clock.

Mr. Dingman may be running out of time – but everyone else can afford to wait.

The county drew up a schedule of nine “master plan 5-year update workshops” between December 21 and April 24, and as I write this, more than half of those meetings have yet to be held.

The next public input opportunity is scheduled for tonight, before the March 1 meeting at which the county commissioners will consider yielding to pressure from developers and other interested parties and adopting master plan amendments that will change the entire spirit of a $2.25 million “growth bible” that is barely half a decade old.

As I understand it, there has been no public discussion whatsoever of proposed amendments that include the drastic step of treating all of Douglas County the same when the transfer of development rights is considered instead of factoring in water tables and other environmental variables as common sense dictates.

The Topaz Basin and the Carson Valley, for instance, have widely differing development management priorities, and allowing the transfer of development rights from TRE to say, Minden seems like a cynical manipulation that puts profit and potential property taxes ahead of the vigilant protection of open spaces proposed in the original master plan.

Clearly, it would be wrong for the present owners of the 1,605-acre portion of Schneider Ranch known as Clear Creek Canyon to be forever denied the right to profit from their investment, and the USFS “land swap” proposal – valuable land already zoned for commercial development in exchange for protected open land with limited building right -will address that.

Nor do I mean to portray developers as irresponsible ogres bent on grabbing up every inch of open space in the Carson Valley and destroying all that we love about it.

Their job is to find cheap land and exploit it for maximum profit, if necessary pressuring the public and their paid servants and elected representatives to change the rules so they won’t have to be broken. It’s just business.

Golf courses are a boon to any community if the choice is between wasteland or landfills and hundreds of acres of lush -and thirsty! – greens and contoured sand traps, even if the majority of the local population never goes near them.

But that’s not the issue here. Unspoiled wilderness and wild-life habitat is preferable to a golf course any day.

And what we all have to worry about is that it may be much easier to tear up a failed golf course and replace it with housing than it would be to go straight from undeveloped open land to more urban sprawl, especially if the county is amenable to willy-nilly master plan amendments.

Mr. Dingman and the Realtors standing by to sell the new homes he wants to build amid pristine forests and meadowland are just doing their jobs.

Hopefully, you will agree that whenever there is a clash between a developer’s interests and those of the entire community, it is your job to use the un-amended, un-diluted, un-equivocal spirit of the master plan to stop them.