Despite widespread public opposition, the Reno City Council voted 6-1 to approve the development agreement, which included three signs for the Neon Line District, two of which Scenic Nevada believes would violate state and local laws.
The vote took place October 27, 2021 during a public hearing on the Neon Line District, a development proposed for the west end of downtown along and around Fourth Street to Keystone Avenue. In addition to Scenic Nevada, there were 130 community letters opposing the archway sign and none in favor. Council Member Jenny Brekhus was the lone no vote, calling it a giveaway to the developer.
“In my experience – 25 years in local government – it’s the most egregious public giveaway that I’ve ever seen,” Brekhus said. “Really an abrogation in the planning and that is very sad to me.”
With the DA inked, the developer can apply for a building permit to ensure the signs are structurally sound, according to the city attorney. Building permits are not approved by the council but are handled administratively by city staff.
Council Member Naomi Duerr provided some hope to the community by getting the developer to agree to a workshop, once the council voted to approve, that would take place before the developer applies for the sign building permits.
State Law and Circumventing City Code
Scenic Nevada contends that including the archway sign in the Development Agreement circumvents city regulations that would otherwise apply and would violate a state law which states that a development agreement can only govern land in which the developer has a real property right:
“In the manner prescribed by ordinance, a governing body may, upon application of any person having a legal or equitable interest in land, enter into an agreement with that person concerning the development of that land.” NRS 278.0201 1.
As proposed, the archway sign would be erected in a mixed-use zone and would stand 27 feet tall and span 102 feet over Keystone Avenue, a public roadway. The north pylon is anchored in a publicly owned right of way, which obviously is not owned by the developer and therefore cannot legally be included within the DA. In addition, mixed-use zones limit signs to eight feet tall with certain exceptions. And this sign doesn’t qualify for an exception. Also, under Reno’s code, no signs are allowed in the public right of way.
The proposed archway sign serves as a marketing tool for the developer’s Neon Line District, which includes the Gold Dust West and Sands casino properties.
We wanted the archway sign removed from the DA, along with another one slated for cemetery land that would face Interstate 80. This sign, known as PY-1B, is about three-quarters of a mile away from the entrance of the Neon Line District and therefore meets the definition of a billboard. New billboards are prohibited by city code unless the property owner has an unused billboard permit called a banked receipt. There are about 30 of those, all owned by billboard companies.
During the discussion, Council Member Duerr asked what the council was committing to regarding the signs by approving the DA. Ultimately, Deputy City Attorney Jasmine Mehta said that council was agreeing to allow the signs as proposed.
“We are agreeing that the three proposed signs are area identification signs and we are setting forth with respect to the archway sign a procedure by which we’ll process that, and they have provided the locations and design standards for – or conceptual designs for the area signs,” she said.
Referring to the sign renderings included in the DA, Council Member Duerr asked if the council was agreeing “to those pictures designed that way.” The city attorney said the council would be in “substantial compliance” with the signs as pictured by the developer’s renderings.
“It still has to come in for a building permit so that engineering can look at it and make sure that it’s structurally sound,” Deputy City Attorney Mehta said. “But in terms of generally, the height, width, what it says and whether it complies with an area identification sign, yes I do think that is what you are agreeing to.”
In an exchange with the deputy city attorney, Council Member Devin Reese questioned what was being lost by approving the signs within the DA and the two agreed that Scenic Nevada could file an appeal to the building permit.
We think the city attorney and council are missing the point. The signs do not comply with code and putting them in the DA to circumvent the city’s sign code actually runs afoul of state law.
The right thing to do would have been to remove the signs from the DA and provide sign standards for the Neon Line District that mirror code. We would not object to signs that comply with Reno’s current sign regulations. They are meant to prevent signs in the right of way and to protect the community from developer overreach, like the archway sign that blocks a scenic mountain view and locating another along a freeway like a billboard.
Many thanks to Council Member Duerr for her persistence on getting a workshop. And sincere thanks to the community for responding to our online request to write the council opposing the archway sign. With your help we made an impression that at least temporarily halted the building permit from going forward until after the workshop is held.