A new amendment to a developer-backed bill reviewed Wednesday by Nevada lawmakers would block conservation advocates from preserving 1,000 acres of prime land south of Reno as open space.
SB326, proposed by Sen. Terry Care, D-Las Vegas, would prohibit state and local governments from using eminent domain authority to acquire property for open-space or wildlife habitat preservation.
Washoe County is trying to designate the Ballardini Ranch area as open space. Advocates of public acquisition say the ranch would provide a needed link to U.S. Forest Service land in the Sierra foothills.
But Minnesota-based Evans Creek LLC, which paid $8.5 million for the ranch in 1998, wants to build nearly 200 upscale homes on part of the property and is in a court fight over Washoe County efforts to acquire the land.
As originally written, SB326 would have applied to cases that arise beginning July 1. But Care proposed an amendment Wednesday that would make the bill retroactive to include all pending cases in the state - including the Ballardini Ranch.
Care said that while he's hesitant to propose legislation that would affect a specific case, "in this case, where I would regard it as an abuse of power, I think we're right to make an exception."
Care also said he wasn't pushing the bill for Evans Creek. He told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the ranch wouldn't be used for a bridge, school or firehouse or other public uses that can justify eminent domain authority.
Care also said the legislation tightens provisions relating to the designation and seizure of blighted property, and that he originally learned about the Ballardini Ranch issue because of a newspaper article.
Tim Nelson of Evans Creek said the land for a long time has been zoned for residential use and that "a layman can see that this is an infield property" that sits five minutes from downtown Reno. He also said development plans include a large amount of green space and public trail access through the property.
Frank Thompson, a lawyer who represents Evans Creek, said "open space and wildlife habitat have never been grounds for the exercise of eminent domain."
"We believe that SB326 simply clarifies and reinforces existing law," he said.
Judiciary Chairman Mark Amodei, R-Carson City, pressed those trying to keep the area open for evidence of the authority to use eminent domain in this case and whether there's a need to declare all of the acreage open.
"No one has testified to the need for 1,000 acres for access," he said. "Tell me why 180 (housing) units can't be clustered somewhere. Why does the county need the whole thing?"
Karen Mullen, director of the Washoe County regional parks department, said picnicking and watershed and wildlife preservation are other reasons to keep the space pristine.
Michael Chapman, a lawyer representing Washoe County, said he has no doubt that state law already covers open space under the acquisition authority because the law includes a provision for "public uses."
"It does not contain the two words 'open space,'" Chapman said. "(But) this is a public purpose for the benefit of the inhabitants of the county."
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