Sunday, April 20, 2008 | 2 a.m.
BY THE NUMBERS: PLANNING APPROVALS AND DENIALS
The Las Vegas City Council approved items on proposed rezoning requests, new development variances or amendments to the city’s general plan over the objections of the city’s planning staff almost eight out of 10 times.
Of the 305 items presented to the City Council in 2007, less than one in 10 were denied in agreement with the planning staff. About 4 percent were removed from consideration for other reasons, and 12.5 percent were withdrawn.
In Today's Sun
Beyond the Sun
Whatever image the developers hoped to evoke by naming their plan Providence Square, northwest valley residents find little providential about a project that, to many, has become synonymous with bad growth.
Last week the Las Vegas City Council approved Focus Property Group’s 200,000-square-foot commercial project on 26 acres — next to the homes of owners who, based on city planning codes, always believed nothing but more large-lot homes would ever be built there.
To Lisa Mayo-Deriso, who led northwest valley residents’ furious opposition to the development, the council’s action was simply the latest proof that in Las Vegas, regardless of how an area is planned or zoned, developers get what developers want.
“My experience has been, it doesn’t matter if a project violates every code in the city book, if some developer thinks it’s a great place build, it gets built,” said Mayo-Deriso, an activist who has thrown herself into northwest valley issues over the past decade. “City Council members just need to ... say no, no, no.”
The record, however, shows that they usually say “yes, yes, yes.”
A Sun analysis found that nearly eight out of 10 times in 2007, the council rejected planning staff recommendations to deny rezoning requests, new development variances or amendments to the city’s general plan.
Of 305 such items to come before the council last year, the council agreed with staff and denied an alteration less than one in 10 times.
The percentages break down like this: 77 percent of items were approved over staff’s objection, 6.5 percent were denied in agreement with the staff, 12.5 percent were withdrawn and about 4 percent were tabled or removed from consideration for other reasons.
“That’s completely unacceptable,” Mayo-Deriso said. “Why do our tax dollars even pay for planning staff when the politicians don’t use their advice?”
David Kwong, Sacramento, Calif., planning manager, said Las Vegas’ numbers “sound a little high” — a considerable understatement given that, by his estimate, only about 1 percent of proposed developments forwarded to his city’s council have denial recommendations attached.
“Zoning,” “variance” and “general plan” can be mind-numbing words — if you pay attention only to the words without looking at what lies beneath. Many times these alterations create profound changes to the look and feel of neighborhoods, business districts, streets and highways.
Developers, for instance, often ask the city for the right to diminish the amount of landscaping required on a project. Others want to shorten the distance between buildings or to decrease — sometimes to zero — the amount of open space a project is required to include. Then there are wall heights — most developers want them higher — and setbacks from roads, which developers often want to eliminate altogether.
The requests come piecemeal. So unless you watch week to week, map by map, the changes are like the receding of a hairline — it happens almost imperceptibly until one day, there’s more scalp than hair.
Or, in the city’s case, you might find canyons of walls around fiefdoms in the northwest valley, with no trees or grass or anything but concrete lining main thoroughfares. Or 7-Elevens might crop up next to homes, offices spring up in residential areas or single-family homes planned for next door suddenly become apartments.
You don’t see it coming until you notice one day that something went awry.
It happens because of dozens of tiny changes made at the Las Vegas City Council and Clark County Commission meetings that no one person can sit and watch and monitor.
No average citizen should have to keep track, Mayo-Deriso says. That’s what elected officials are supposed to be doing.
“What do we even plan neighborhoods for if the city or county doesn’t hold to those plans?” she said. “I should not be spending several hours every weekend studying this stuff just to make sure my elected official isn’t going to ruin our neighborhood.”
City Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian, when informed of the Sun’s figures, chocked them up to the need for a political body to move quickly in one of the nation’s fastest-growing communities.
“We are all very concerned about neighborhoods and watching quality of life issues closely,” she said.
Mark Fiorentino, senior vice president of government affairs for Focus Property Group, the parent of the company that wants to build Providence Square, said his experience has been that city politicians are far from pushovers when it comes to zoning changes.
“I think they deny a fair amount of (requested changes) and approve a fair amount of them and do a pretty good job of looking at them on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
As for Providence Square, which is to be on the southeast corner of Hualapai and Deer Springs ways, adjacent to the 215 Beltway, Fiorentino said Focus spent more than a year trying to work out a plan to satisfy neighbors. Signage has been restricted, landscape buffers were increased, lighting was toned down and no taverns will be allowed in the development.
“We didn’t go into it with any expectation other than we had our work cut out for us,” he said. “We worked really, really hard to design a project that came as close to a compromise as possible.”
He also said not all neighbors are against the project. “The project is designed to serve the residents,” he said.
Not all of them, however, want to be served.
“We hate it because it is a commercial development smack-dab in the middle of a neighborhood,” Mayo-Deriso said, adding that nearby residents expected homes, not stores, to be built there. “That’s why we hate it.”
Next weekend the 100th conference of the American Planning Association will be held in Las Vegas, drawing more than 5,000 planners from around the world. But it won’t be the Strip that takes center stage as much as the development around that economic engine.
The conference features more than 60 mobile workshops. The planners will be shuttled to various locations to view development case studies throughout Southern Nevada.
Watching and worrying over all of this will be Margo Wheeler. Incisive, whip-smart and with the ability to put arcane zoning regulations into layman’s terms, Wheeler is the city’s director of planning and development.
When told that 77 percent of the time City Council votes went against the recommendations of her staff, Wheeler was not fazed — the same as when she was asked whether the city codes are outdated or whether her department is being used wisely by the City Council.
“They look at a wider range of things than merely city code,” Wheeler said of council members. “That’s what they are elected to do.
“Land-use law is set up so economic interests are not an issue. So you have a natural tension immediately. My job is to look at the code. On the other side, if you will, they look at the bottom line.”
Developers sometimes put “incredible pressures” on the council, she said.
“We advise them ... to give them the highest likelihood of approval, to minimize the number of variances they’re applying for and to make the best project we can,” Wheeler said.
Checks and balances are built into the process by forcing plans through city staff, the Planning Commission and the City Council, resulting in “a full vetting” of development issues.
She points out that before the council votes, conditions often are added to mitigate plan changes and satisfy neighbors.
Some examples from 2006 and 2007:
• In June 2006 the council granted a variance to allow zero open space in an 11-acre, 36-lot single-family home development near Rainbow Boulevard and El Campo Avenue. City code demanded 28,750 square feet of open space for such a development. In lieu of the open space, the developer was allowed to donate $103,672 to the city for work on parks. The development has not yet been built.
• A similar deal was made a year later, in August 2007, when a developer received a variance to construct a 49-plot housing project on 25 acres. Instead of putting 35,000 square feet of open space into the project, as required by the code, the developer was permitted to donate $141,172 to the city for park improvements.
• In 2006 a developer wanted to build three-story homes instead of two-story homes in a 10-acre residential subdivision near Elkhorn and Campbell roads in the northwest valley. City planning staff recommended denial. The City Council approved most of the request, but required that roughly 40 percent of the structures be limited to two stories to mitigate neighbors’ concerns. On the same development three years earlier, the city approved a variance allowing just .76 acres of open space, less than half the 1.65 acres required by city code.
Many requested changes involve seemingly minor items. Instead of a 12-foot setback from the road, say, a developer might ask for a 10-foot setback. Or instead of a 500-foot separation from a like business, someone might seek a 450-foot separation.
In isolation, such changes can seem to be only minor planning deviations. The cumulative effect over years, however, usually is much more pronounced, resulting in permanent aesthetic and other changes.
At times, when neighbors and developers can’t agree, planning items are postponed, giving the sides a chance to try to work out their differences. Some items in 2007 were postponed up to six times over four months.
Councilman Steve Ross, whose ward contains the contested Providence Square, said postponements are a key method used by the council to achieve compromises.
“By the time the item gets to City Council, the developer has typically been working out the issues with the neighborhoods, businesses and interested parties,” Ross said. “The original denial from staff remains even if and after the developer has made substantial changes to a site plan or zoning based on community input.”
To Mayo-Deriso, perhaps the most objectionable thing about the city’s planning process is the amount of time and effort it takes average citizens to attend all those meetings.
A developer’s project is his full-time job, but residents have other jobs, families, soccer practices and countless other commitments in their daily lives. Their full-time job is life, not meeting with developers to try to ensure part of that life — perhaps purchased near Hualapai and Deer Springs — is preserved.
“I do have a life outside of this, and I wish I could live it,” said Mayo-Deriso, a consultant to businesses, including developers. “But I can’t. It seems like we can’t rest. We have to stay vigilant.”
Contrary to Ross’ assessment that a developer has typically worked out issues before a council vote, instances remain where neighbors go to the City Council as their last resort.
In early April Robert Eagle, a 62-year-old resident, appeared before the council, primarily to address his council member, Larry Brown, about zoning, variance and general plan changes that a developer wanted to build 252 apartments on 11 acres designated for lower-density housing.
With defeat in his voice, Eagle’s words came slowly. He cleared his throat many times, then told the City Council that he thought the city was never on his side.
“The whole city has not stood up for us at all,” he said. “It seems to stand up for the developer. And here we are as citizens, and it just doesn’t make sense.”
Brown did not return a call for comment.
A similar defeatism was felt by those who opposed Providence Square.
Ross, accusing opponents of using “fear tactics,” talked about how the development would benefit the surrounding neighborhoods.
Outside City Hall, Mayo-Deriso and others from the northwest commiserated. There are certain to be more issues to come, she said, noting that though this day was a defeat, it may have galvanized her cohorts for future battles.
In Mayo-Deriso’s ideal world, city planning would work this way: The City Council would revisit codes every two years and make updates as needed. Then city leaders would advise developers that they were going to rigidly follow those plans. If a developer wants an exception to the plan, he would have to think ahead far enough to get those changes incorporated into the code.
“Oh, I’ve been told that the code is just a ‘guideline,’ ” she said, scoffing. “Well, is it also just a guideline when I’m driving and I go over the speed limit and get a ticket? Can I tell the officer that 65 was ‘just a guideline’?
“The answer is no. And if a developer buys a property and it doesn’t fit the plan, they need to be told, ‘Hey buddy, here’s the speed limit. This is what people bought into.
“These are the rules.’ ”