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Require clustering to increase open space in Valley

by Terry Burnes Special to The R-C

County Question 3, the sales tax increase to preserve Douglas County open space, was narrowly defeated. What does this mean?

Well, we all know that Douglas County residents are strongly tax averse. I think that this vote means our collective aversion to taxes slightly outweighs our love for our open space lands here. It doesn’t mean there is no support for preserving open space.

So, what to do next? Should we give up on open space preservation? I don’t think so. We just need to find a way to do that without asking voters to pay for it through higher taxes or property owners to pay for it by reducing the amount of development they are allowed under existing zoning.

I think that there is one simple strategy that we could adopt that would accomplish this and make a significant difference in the open space situation here going forward. That is to require the clustering of new development on our open space lands instead of making it voluntary as it is now.

To better understand clustering and how it can work to protect open space without reducing the ability of property owners to fully utilize the zoning on their land let’s look at the simple example of a 1000 acre ranch whose owners want to develop it to its full potential.

Our rural zoning allows one parcel and house per every 19 acres. In a traditional development scheme that would result in about 52 parcels and houses being scattered evenly across the property, breaking up and largely eliminating its open space value.

But if that development were clustered by grouping 52 five acre parcels together in one part of the property we’d end up with the new development grouped on 260 acres of the property and the other 740 acres left intact as one “open space” parcel, likely still viable for ranching or farming. Of course by reducing the lot sizes even further the open space benefit of this approach could be increased. If the clustered parcels were three acres each, the resulting open space parcel would be 844 acres, out of 1000 total. Not bad.

To me this should be acceptable to all concerned. Yes, it would result in some development of our open space areas, which might disappoint open space advocates. But the reality is that they asked voters to pay for more definitive open space protection and they lost. Isn’t an alternative that gets, say, three quarters of a loaf better than no loaf at all?

As to ranchers and rural property owners, they lose nothing in this approach and arguably gain by it. Clustered development is cheaper to accomplish because it reduces the infrastructure required and it leaves a viable option for continued agricultural use of the property, meaning a more diversified income stream (development and agriculture rather than just one or the other).

I think the only hurdle here is political will. For some reason we have a reluctance to require something like this of land owners. But this sort of thing is done successfully elsewhere because it leaves property owners with substantial “reasonable use” of their property, the legal standard in this country for determining if a regulation amounts to an illegal taking of private property. What, really, could be the land owner’s complaint in the above example? He or she essentially would be able to have their cake and eat it too, 52 houses and a still viable ranch.

Certainly there would be details to be worked out but this seems like an ideal time to proceed with this. We have a new County Commission comprised of people who all seem committed to both a “green” Carson Valley and protection of property rights. We also have a political coalition in place that supported Question 3 and thus would seem to support alternative approaches to achieving the same end. And we’re engaged in a master plan revision, part of which should be how to preserve open space in the wake of Question 3’s defeat.

Terry Burnes is a retired California planner and a Gardnerville Ranchos resident.