Nevada Newsmakers

Sparks mayor, seeking federal land for development, fears his city may turn into a 'San Francisco'

News - February 21, 2024

Sparks Mayor Ed Lawson does not seem to care much for the City of San Francisco.

"I never did like going to San Francisco," Lawson said recently on Nevada Newsmakers.

"I still don't," he told host Sam Shad. "The traffic's horrible. The people are not as friendly.

"I mean, it's just not the lifestyle that I want to live in," Lawson said. "I don't think that many of our Sparks residents want to live that life, either."

Lawson fears the Rail City may someday have some of the urban problems plaguing San Francisco, such as snarled traffic, countless housing issues and perhaps most importantly, no room to grow.

"For us in Sparks, we are out of land," Lawson said, later adding:

"There was a land study done by the business community. We'll run out of residential land in (20)27. "

That is why a land transfer -- from the federal government to Sparks -- is so critical and is now before Congress. Both Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nv., and U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Carson City, are pushing for its approval.

Sparks is in a pickle. People are flocking there, seeking employment in the growing tech industries because it is only 10 miles west from the largest economic engine in Northern Nevada -- the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center (TRIC) -- in neighboring Storey County.

Sparks wants to buy federal land to its east to build housing closer to TRIC and provide a sewer system for expected new residents and businesses.

"We have about 2,000 acres where we want to put in housing," Lawson said about the land bill. "They (employees at TRIC) would actually live in Washoe County and work in Storey County, which is just across the freeway. "

Sparks, with an estimated population of 107,000, has seen its population increase by more than 6,000 residents since the 2020 Census, Lawson said.

Storey County, the second-smallest county in Nevada, has little public housing, so the responsibility of providing homes to those workers mainly falls on Sparks, but also Reno, Fernley and Fallon.

"Think about this: You have 30,000 jobs in Storey County right now with 4,200 residents in the entire county, and they're expected to be at 60,000 jobs in the next five to eight years," Lawson said.

Lawson said he has held "some high level" conversations with Storey County commissioners about the lands bill and proposed housing, adding, "as we get closer and we get down the road, we'll have those conversations more often."

Experts at the Economic Development Agency of Western Nevada (EDAWN) and the University of Nevada have suggested the Reno-Sparks area must build about 5,000 to 6,000 homes annually to keep up with the growing demand. Yet from Lawson's perspective, that's "probably" an underestimation.

"Every one of those companies (moving) out there (to the TRIC) are doubling Google's (footprint)," Lawson said, referring to one of the largest employers at the TRIC.

"All these big, giant corporations are coming where money is not an object for them. So they can build and it doesn't really matter how much it costs," he said.

Transplants from California's tech industry may impact the housing market in Sparks to a greater extent if the land transfer does not go through.

"Fully, 50 percent of our people are coming from the tech industry in California to move here because our houses are cheap," Lawson said. "And we're all saying, man, $600,000 for an average median house is outrageous for us. But over in the Bay Area, that's cheap. "

The median cost for a home in the Reno-Sparks area is about $610,000, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal.

"And once again -- going back to 'I don't want to be San Francisco' -- that's where we're going to end up if we don't have the land to build or expand or to rejigger our property taxes," Lawson said. "Then we are going to have to build vertical."

Lawson was highly critical of Nevada's property tax system, saying ... "the Constitution of the State of Nevada has the most regressive property tax system in the United States."

Cities and counties in Nevada have tried for years to change Nevada's 2005 law that capped annual property tax increases on residential property at 3 percent and other property at 8 percent, as pre-recession land and home values skyrocketed back then, according to the Nevada Current.

The 2005 law has saved thousands of dollars for individual property owners while costing the state’s cities and counties billions, the Current reported.

"We have to grow up," Lawson said. "And I don't want to be San Francisco, but it looks like we're going to end up being San Francisco if we don't get, No. 1 -- the property tax changed -- or (No. 2) the lands bill."

"And when we build vertical, there's a lot of problems that come along with that," Lawson continued. "One is the cost. A 2x4 still costs what a 2x4 costs."

He also sees the phrase "affordable housing" as a misnomer.

"So there's no such thing as affordable housing," Lawson said. "There's subsidized housing and there's market rate. That's the only two kinds of housing there are."

Vertical construction, however, also has a part in Sparks' strategic plan, Lawson said, after Shad mentioned the new apartment buildings in downtown Sparks.

"That's part of our growth pattern, though, and we're calling it our downtown city center," Lawson said. "We have an Oddie Boulevard city center that will be high density. And then we'll have a river city center. All this is based on the lands bill."

Time, however, is already running out to get the lands bill passed this session, Lawson worries.

"If it doesn't happen this year, we're two years away again," he said. "If it doesn't happen in this Congress, it has to start all over again in the next Congress."

Congressional attention spans could also be shortened this session because of the buildup to November's general election, when many in Congress must face the voters, Shad added.

Lawson also discounts the notion that communities east of Sparks, such as Fernley and Fallon, will be able to absorb much of the future growth, even though those communities have already experienced sizable growth with the expansion of Storey County industry.

"It will (grow only) to a point because of water," he said. "Water is everything. The old saying is right: Whiskey's for drinking and water's for fighting.'

"That's the biggest problem," Lawson continued. "You literally have to go down to Yerington and into Smith Valley, Mason Valley in order to get water," he said.

When asked if Yerington, 70 miles southeast of Reno and situated in the Mason Valley, could become a boom town, Lawson said:

"Absolutely. But I don't see these other towns (doing so) just because there's not enough water to support the growth."

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