This week a district court judge will hear oral arguments in the lawsuit filed by Scenic Nevada seeking to void a development agreement between the city of Reno and developers of the Neon Line, a loose assemblage of parcels dotting west Fourth Street meant to attract tourists and residents in a new entertainment district.
The one-hour hearing begins at 2:30 p.m. and will take place in downtown Reno in Department Four of the Washoe County Courthouse before District Judge Connie Steinheimer. The session is in person only for those who want to attend. There is no online viewing.
The hearing marks a final step in the uphill battle Scenic Nevada faced to get a court review of the Neon Line Development Agreement.
Our initial lawsuit was filed in November of 2021, less than a month after the city council’s approval of the agreement. Both the city and the developers moved for dismissal on procedural grounds, one of which was that Scenic Nevada lacks standing. Judge Steinheimer denied the motion to dismiss but separately split the case in two, keeping our writ petition in her court. Meanwhile, our Petition for Judicial Review was assigned to District Court Judge Scott Freeman, who eventually dismissed that part of our case.
The Development Deal
The development deal covers the northwest quadrant of downtown called the Neon Line District and includes the area around west Fourth Street from West Street to Keystone Avenue.
At stake is a city agreement with companies affiliated with casino owner Jeff Jacobs seeking to remake west downtown Reno into an entertainment district. Jacobs owns The J Resort casino (formerly called the Sands) and the Gold Dust West. His vision for the neighborhood largely would promote his “Neon Line” brand to the thousands of people he believes will be drawn to the area since his festival grounds were constructed last year. He’s also talked of installing a zipline and an amphitheater. His vision was opposed by hundreds of residents at a community meeting in January 2022.
For Scenic Nevada, the hearing means we get an opportunity to show the judge that the three bright, tacky signs contemplated by the development agreement are contrary to the people’s vote banning new billboards in Reno and other city sign ordinances. Scenic Nevada authored the ballot initiative which was approved by 57 percent of the voters in the 2000 election. For the next 17 years, the Reno City Council allowed new billboards until finally, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that we were correct and the city’s billboard “banking and relocation” ordinances allowing new construction violated the Nevada Constitution.
Following that ruling, the council finally changed the city code and enacted the ban. Jacobs and the city assert that the proposed signs are “area identification” signs which they say are okay under the code. Scenic Nevada contends that two of the signs are off-premises advertising displays that meet the definition of a billboard under the city code. Scenic Nevada also contends that they were not properly approved in compliance with existing law and a prior settlement agreement between the city and Scenic Nevada.
Scenic Nevada further contends that the entire development agreement is contrary to state law because it includes parcels within the project area in which Jacobs did not have a legal or equitable interest when the agreement was approved by the council in a 6-1 vote. State law limits development agreements to land in which a developer has a “legal or equitable interest”.
Scenic Nevada Asserts the Agreement Violates the Billboard Ban
Jacobs intends to build at least three LED lit signs. Renderings showing the size, shape, height, lighting, and locations are included in the development agreement the city council approved.
One is a 27-foot-tall archway sign that would span west Fourth Street, partially obscuring a scenic mountain view and has one pylon located in the public right-of-way, which would be a violation of city code without the development agreement. The other two would be 25 feet tall with one facing Interstate 80 advertising the Neon Line District to passing freeway motorists and located three-quarters of a mile away from the Neon Line District. The third will be positioned at the entrance of the proposed district at Keystone and West Fourth street. Scenic Nevada asserts that without the development agreement, none of them would comply with Reno’s citycodes, and thus the validity of the development agreement is a key issue.
Further, Scenic Nevada argues that allowing the development agreement to stand would violate a 2017 settlement agreement between Scenic Nevada, the city, and billboard industry giant Lamar Advertising. No one can erect a billboard (defined as “off premises advertising display”) in Reno unless they can submit a preexisting unused billboard permit. There are about 20 permits, and all are owned by billboard companies. These permits are set to expire by 2025, if they aren’t used.
After enduring 20 months of legal wrangling, we are grateful to finally have oral argument before the court. It’s not known how soon after oral arguments the judge will issue her decision. Whatever the outcome, we think the battle was necessary to enforce the people’s vote banning new billboards in Reno. Community support and the help of our pro bono attorney were vital in getting us this far. Many thanks to all those who have supported us now and for the past 23 years to help keep Reno scenic.