Driving rural highways in Nevada can be a dangerous project. Rabbits darting across the road create unnerving obstacles. Cattle are even greater hazards, seeming to appear from out of nowhere. Everyone’s initial impulse is to brake and swerve, but many of these narrow blacktops are like causeways. Cars that stray onto the steeply sloping shoulders at the pavement’s margin tend to roll. A second course of action is to hit the steer head on and hope. However, these slow-moving creatures carry enormous inertial mass. A single bovine can completely wreck a car. The best advice is this: Remember to completely scan the road ahead — stay ready to confront the unexpected.
In many ways, these cautions equally apply to politics in Black Rock country. This story takes us back to March 2001 when we acquired our 200-acre work ranch in Hualapai Valley, a few miles distant from the Black Rock Desert. Previously, we had rented a smaller 80-acre parcel immediately adjacent to it. Over the years, this original facility became encumbered with abandoned vehicles, stacked building materials, and the corpses of extinct art projects. Upon acquiring our ranch, we planned to transfer operations onto this new property. We purchased shipping containers for storage, revived an old well, and built a beautiful iodized aluminum Quonset-style shop for wood and metal work.
Everything seemed to be going well, until representatives of the Washoe County planning and health departments appeared, informing us that nearly everything we’d done was wrong. The commissary we had built was inadequate to feed our workers. Furthermore, our mode of housing workers was not in compliance with the law. New standards now required that we build a facility with curbed roadways, large paved parking areas, landscaping and street lighting – an urban-style trailer park more or less equivalent to a KOA campground. It would cost, at minimum, a half of a million dollars. The rough and ready days of the work ranch had apparently ended. We were suddenly confronting a very large cow in our road.
In response, we huddled with the county agencies in order to develop a conforming plan. We eventually applied for four Special Use permits. Mandated improvements included a salvage yard, a personal storage facility, extensive fencing to protect the viewshed, an ambitious landscaping plan, a second large shop facility to separate woodworking from automotive repair, and, finally, the required campground. We also pledged ourselves to satisfy a welter of additional concerns. This pledge produced 95 special conditions – an unprecedented number – including such tasks as removing all material stored on open ground, reseeding our original rental property, camouflaging all our structures, and widening a public road that led to the property. Finally, we negotiated timelines that would help to make this work affordable for us. In March 2003, the Washoe County Planning Commission approved our plans.
However, this was only the beginning of the process. An appeal ensued. A second cow had now appeared, and it had horns. At the time, we were confident of final approval. Only a handful of people had brought forward objections, and these were answered by our permits and their extraordinary conditions. On May 13, the matter came before the Washoe County Commission in a room filled to overflowing with supporters. Members of the county planning department argued in our favor. No new facts were adduced, and the questions of commission members, coming at the end of hours of supportive testimony, raise few and simple issues. Yet, when a vote was called, our permits, the result of weeks of consultation with nearly every type of expert on the county’s payroll, were denied. We had lost by a single vote. This, it now appeared, was not an ordinary cow.
Undeterred, we seized the initiative. Within days, we filed a lawsuit against the county citing damages of several million dollars. We felt we had no choice. We also made our case on local television. The Reno Gazette ran editorials. The loss of Burning Man spelled hardship for a region reliant on tourist dollars. Buttons were distributed by merchants, and a subsequent commission meeting was flooded by local protestors, all of whom spoke eloquently on our behalf. Our ally in this struggle was Bonnie Weber, the commissioner for our district. She had voted in our favor. She was aware, of course, that Burning Man participants provided local businesses with income. But, even more importantly, she knew that over a period of three years we had earned the goodwill of the communities near our event site. We’ve given thousands of dollars in charitable contributions to these towns, and we have always taken special care to respond to the concerns of local residents.
During the ensuing months, we seemed to be embarked on a collision course with the authorities. Some kind of compromise was necessary on both sides. We followed two paths toward a resolution. Working with Commissioner Jim Shaw and Commissioner Weber, we arranged to meet with the appellants of the permits and discuss our differences. This conflict, it turned out, was really about perception and trust. We started an extended dialogue in order to allay these fears. At the same time, we returned to the agencies and began to explore solutions. For this purpose, we assembled our own very talented group of land planning experts, designers, and planners. We were groping our way forward, trying to assemble a picture from the puzzle of existing regulations. A key victory occurred when the state of Nevada granted us additional water rights. We also discovered we could establish what is called a primary residence on our ranch. This designation would allow us to apply for permits to use the land in ways that conformed to the pre-existing High Desert plan.
Civic Lesson Learned
Our real problem, we began to realize, was this general code contemplated only mining and agricultural uses. Many of our actual needs — storage, shop facilities — were indistinguishable from these uses. However, due to the nature of our event, they were deemed to represent a novel category of land use. This particular problem also caused us to re-evaluate how we house and feed our crews and how we schedule work throughout the year. By extending our construction timeline, we realized that our Department of Public Works can accomplish its work while employing fewer people at one time. In December 2003, we purchased property in Gerlach that could be developed for a variety of purposes, including housing for our workers.
In the end, we didn’t have to pursue our lawsuit, the event happened as scheduled, and all parties to this conflict were accommodated. Most certainly, we’ve learned quite a lot about the remarkable complexities of land use regulations. We’ve also made a lot of new political friends in Washoe County – many were our welcome guests in Black Rock City in 2003. In this process, we’ve discovered that Burning Man has become an indigenous part of Nevada’s social and cultural landscape. Finally, we learned one last lesson that may be of use to everyone. If you should encounter steers upon a country road, remember to drive very slowly, be ready to honk your horn, and just keep edging forward (you can reach your goal).
Rae Richman and Larry Harvey