Neighbors wary of UNR expansion: Reno (NV) Gazette-Journal, 4/10/05

By Lenita Powers

A proposed master plan that would allow the University of Nevada, Reno to triple in size is being blasted by opponents as “the biggest land grab in the history of the city,” that would devalue area homes and remove hundreds of thousands of dollars from the tax base.

Under the proposed 50-year plan, the most ambitious since the university was founded in 1874, the campus would expand from its current 290 acres to 860 acres. Private interests would own and develop some of that land for commercial and residential use, university officials said. The expansion, those officials say, will be driven by enrollment that is projected to increase 43 percent in the next decade.

Despite assurances the university will acquire land for expansion “only from willing sellers,” business and homeowners fear the mere threat of eminent domain will cause neighborhoods to deteriorate and property values to plummet. That will allow the university to gobble up their land at low prices, they say.

University and city officials contend the tax base will grow by enhancing development in the surrounding area, and a top UNR administrator has promised eminent domain would not be used to force property owners to sell.

John Buffa, who lives on Evans Avenue just east of the university, isn’t convinced. He said residents and business owners won’t invest in property improvements under the shadow of eminent domain.

“What the university has magnanimously proposed to do is pay fair market value, but with this cloud, the prices will go down,” he said. “And given the real estate market these days, there’s nowhere to go.”

Buffa said he paid $90,000 for the four-bedroom, two-bath house he and his wife, Ruth, have lived in for 20 years. If the university’s expansion causes prices to drop, Buffa said he and other homeowners will have a hard time finding comparable housing they can afford.

“The university wants to take everything from Sierra Street over east to Sutro, and they’re eventually going to push one hell of a lot of people out of here,” he said.

“There’s a large immigrant population on Valley Road, and that’s been completely overlooked. But the university is the 800-pound gorilla, and the city and planning commission seem to be falling all over themselves to do what they want.”

The Reno City Council is scheduled to consider adopting the UNR Regional Center Plan at 6 p.m. during its April 27 meeting. If approved, the existing zoning in the area would remain as it currently is until the university acquires the land. Then each parcel automatically would be rezoned as is called for in the plan.

The university’s promise not to use eminent domain needs to be included in writing as part of the plan if city council approves it, said Frankie Sue Del Papa, a resident of the neighborhood west of UNR that will be included in the plan.

“I’ve lived here since 1979 and I spent $115,000 for a major addition in 1993,” said Del Papa, Nevada’s former attorney general. “My concern is there should be greater protection for existing homeowners, too. This rezoning allows for high-density development.”

John Frederick, UNR’s provost and executive vice president, said the overlay district being proposed for the university provides the zoning guide to implement its expansion plans.

“Right now, every time we buy a piece of property and want to change the use, we have to go through an expensive and time-consuming process to get rezoning,” Frederick said. “What the city is trying to do with us is make the process more seamless and easier as we continue to grow.”

The Board of Regents, which oversees Nevada’s higher education system, still would have to approve the purchase of each property, he said.

The Reno Planning Commission voted 5-1 at its March 16 meeting to recommend the city adopt the plan subject to a regional planning review and on the condition the university provide an update every three years on how the plan is progressing.

Darrin Georgeson, the planning commission member who cast the lone vote against the plan, objected to the part called the “main gateway,” which is included in the first phase of development.

It would replace businesses and homes in a five-block-long area along Ninth Street and south to Interstate 80 with what UNR’s plan calls “a sweeping lawn, serving as the symbolic entrance to the campus.”

Georgeson said the university’s Ninth Street entrance already has the grassy Quad and is fronted by the large lawn area known as the Manzanita Bowl.

“I don’t see how education will benefit by an open space area that’s the size of nine to 10 football fields,” he said. “It’s not compatible, and it’s going to ruin that area.”

Part of the area the “gateway” would replace includes North Center Street and the house built in 1895 where Fred Atcheson grew up and which is still his home.

Atcheson, a Reno attorney who owns several properties in the area as well as the popular Record Street CafĂ©, thinks the university’s claim that it wants a huge, grassy entrance is “a ruse” to downgrade the zoning in the area to acquire surrounding property more cheaply.

“This is one of the biggest inverse condemnation projects that ever occurred in Reno,” he said. “Usually if you rezone property, you rezone it up. They don’t have to keep it open space because their master plan allows them to change it at will and use it for want they want.”

UNR’s 50-year plan is broken into three phases, which are referred to as Horizons 1, 2 and 3. The “gateway” project is among those in the first phase, which is expected to occur between 2012 and 2016.

Ron Cobb, chairman of the city’s planning commission, praised the university’s foresight, saying he wished that such long-range planning had been done for the fast-growing south Reno area.

But Atcheson said the city has not even done an analysis of how much it will cost Reno when his and other business owners’ and homeowners’ properties are taken off the tax rolls.

“We have more than 60 parcels, not including residential motels, that will come off the property rolls and, in some cases, destroy a thousand years of history in the process,” he said.

John Hester, Reno’s director of community development, acknowledged that an analysis was not done to determine how much money the city would lose after land is acquired by the university, which is a state-owned institution and does not pay property taxes.

“The city of Reno benefits from having the university, probably more than from residential property taxes,” he said. “For example, if you have some land developed for biotechnical programs or health science, that brings in related businesses that use those and that generate high-paying jobs.”

A Realtor in Berkeley, Calif., who was contacted by the Reno Gazette-Journal, said the value of property around a university generally increases, particularly for commercially zoned sites.

“Residential prices also do well because you have a high demand for housing for students, professors and staff,” said Bill Grimason, assistant manager at Remax Executive in Berkeley, where the University of California, Berkeley is located.

“I think it would be a positive thing as part of the real estate values, but there will be isolated instances that would be negative for some people,” he said.

“No one wants to be next to a fraternity or a 10-story dormitory if they live in a quiet neighborhood. So, overall, it will be good for the city and the area, but there will be more density and more people, and some people will be impacted negatively.”

UNR’s provost insists the university will not use eminent domain nor try to exercise eminent domain through the Board of Regents.

“We’re not even going to ask for it,” Frederick said. “Yes, that’s a promise.”

Frederick also denies the university is trying to down-zone the area south of the campus as open space as a ploy to get surrounding property cheaply and then develop that open space later.

“When you come off (Interstate 80), you don’t see the university, you see some run-down things,” he said. “You don’t get a very good impression coming up Center Street, and it’s not very good coming up Virginia Street, either.”

The idea is to create an open space that is welcoming to students and visitors, he said.

“There’s no hidden agenda,” Frederick said. “And the assumption is that it’s all going to be grass. We have been stressing high-desert vegetation. Green space can be a lot of things and it doesn’t have to be all solid grass.”

Whatever it is, it will replace the University Preschool, which cares for about 85 children and is housed in a home that is on the Nevada and Reno Registers of Historic Places.

Lorrie Casalta owns the historic house at 847 N. Center St. that was built in 1887. She and her husband bought it in 1998 for $135,000 and spent $144,000 to remodel it and turn part of it into a preschool.

When Casalta first heard about UNR’s master plan a year ago, she discussed selling it to the university, which she said provided an insight into UNR’s idea of fair market value.

“They appraised it at $250,000, which is less than what it was worth in 1999,” she said. “So this is the only property I know of in Reno and Sparks that has gone down in value. They’re so bent on decreasing the value of these properties, and it’s just a blatant attempt to steal these properties at below-market value.”

UNR’s provost counters with the amount the university paid for a home in the Ninth Street area that shows the opposite is true.

“We know of at least one recent example where we paid $70,000 more than a competing buyer,” Frederick said. “And did we swoop in with eminent domain? No one has to sell if the price isn’t right.”

Reno Gazette-Journal: www.rgj.com