High court questions power Douglas voters should have
CARSON CITY — The push by Douglas County and developers to block growth limits drew questions Tuesday from the Nevada Supreme Court about whether they have taken too much power away from voters.
Bill Huss representing developers and Douglas District Attorney Scott Doyle argued the case is legally the same as the Fuji Park and Reno train trench cases in which the high court ruled those were administrative decisions up to the local governing board.
State high court rulings this fall said voters can’t change Reno’s decision to depress the train tracks through town and Carson City’s plan to sell off part of Fuji Park.
Huss argued those decisions were correct because the entire power over master plan, zoning and growth management “has been delegated by the state” to local planning and governing boards. Like those decisions, he said, the Douglas County master plan can’t be changed by initiative.
The high court took the case under submission and will rule in the near future.
Justices including Myron Leavitt questioned that argument, pointing out that the park and trench questions were invalid because they dealt with a specific project, not a broad policy issue.
“What we’re talking about here is a policy for the whole county,” he said. “It’s not for a railroad trench or a park. It’s for the whole county.”
Justice Bob Rose said if Huss is interpreting those decisions correctly, “maybe we said it too expansively and should use this case to retract.”
Justice Nancy Becker made similar comments during the 30-minute oral arguments Tuesday.
Rose questioned why citizens have less power to limit growth than the county board: “Why can’t citizens say on a legislative basis that rampant growth is going to impact our quality of life?”
But Doyle argued the initiative is legally offensive because it imposes an arbitrary growth rate of 280 homes a year not tied to anything like infrastructure or groundwater supplies.
“It’s a myopic, let’s pick a number that feels good,” he said.
And Doyle said because of that, it could violate property-owner rights to develop their land.
“What we’re talking about here is the most basic of property rights,” Doyle said. “When you tell a property owner you can’t build, government needs a good reason for doing so.”
Doyle is a precarious position, since he must defend the county against a lawsuit brought on by developers to stop the growth limit from being enforced as law.
As a governmental attorney, Doyle says he has a multitude of responsibilities and that standards for possible conflicts of interests are different.
Bill Shaw, defending organizers of the Sustainable Growth Initiative, said courts upheld Petaluma’s right to impose a 500-home per year limit on new growth. He said the court was right in the Fuji Park and trench cases because they dealt with specific administrative decisions on specific projects.
The Douglas County case, Shaw argued, is different because it is “the broadest policy.” To rule for developers, he said, “would appear we’re heading headlong to restrict and repeal the right of the people to initiative on local issues.”
John Gavin of the Sustainable Growth group said he was pleased by what he heard.
“What we’re pleased about is the justices asked questions that went to the heart of the issue,” he said.
Judy Sturgis, also of the Sustainable Growth group, said the court seemed to understand the severe restrictions this case would cause for people trying to use the initiative petition process.
“If they do this, there’ll be nothing left to initiate,” she said.
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