Tiny Fernley feeling the ex-urban pinch
December 19, 2004
FERNLEY – Things in Fernley aren’t like they used to be. Just ask Linda Sanders.
“We used to be able to go to the grocery store and talk to everybody,” said the 63-year-old secretary, a longtime resident. “Now I don’t know anybody.”
That’s because the population of this former ranching community has nearly doubled in the last four years. Fernley officials estimate their town has about 16,000 residents – up almost 20 percent in the last year alone.
The explosion here is emblematic of Nevada’s booming economy and red-hot real estate market, experts say, and is part of a nationwide migration to the ex-urbs. Soaring property values near city centers have led many middle- and working-class families to settle out in the exurbs, where housing is more affordable and space more plentiful.
“This is the kind of new growth in America, this … sort of sprawling movement to suburban regions,” said William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution.
With Reno growing more expensive and densely populated, Fernley, just 30 miles away, and other communities in wide-open Northern Nevada are enticing businesses and individuals – nearly half from California – to relocate.
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Reno and the rest of Washoe County don’t have much room left for large-scale development, said Ron Weisinger, executive director of the Northern Nevada Development Authority. “It’s a natural progression of going east and south,” he said.
Lyon County, where Fernley is located, is the nation’s 35th fastest-growing county in the fastest-growing state, according to census figures. And Fernley, a newly incorporated city, is experiencing its share of growing pains.
Drive far enough east, past the cluster of gas stations and shops along Main Street, and you’ll find the future of Fernley. It’s in the Donner Trail Estates subdivision, with its canary yellow-and-scarlet flags whipping in the chilly mountain wind. Row after row of one-story stucco houses have sprouted up from pasture land, the seams still visible in the yards’ newly laid sod and the distinct thump of hammering echoing through the air.
On Fort Bridger Road, five houses in a row have “sold” signs planted on their lawns. An estimated 1,200 houses are being built each year in Fernley, with 5,600 more planned, according to City Manager Gary Bacock.
Fina Larsen and her husband ditched their rented four-bedroom, 1,300-square-foot, $1,600-a-month Napa, Calif., townhouse in June for a larger four-bedroom home with a yard and a $1,400 mortgage payment in Fernley.
“I could not buy a mortgage in California,” said Larsen, 37, an employee at the Dark Horse coffee shop and mother of two. “I don’t need to do a lot and survive out here,” Larsen said. “In Napa, I was making $11 an hour and wasn’t making it. I make $6 to $7 an hour here, and I’m just doing fine. … This is going to be a little California, the next thing you know.”
That’s what worries some residents. Fernley’s handful of roads, where farmers used to drive their tractors hauling hay, have grown congested with people commuting to and from Reno or Carson City – where about half of Fernley’s residents work.
The local schools, lone grocery store and volunteer fire department are feeling the strain. There are concerns about water availability. And because Fernley formally became a city only in 2001, the newly established government is having to make it up as it goes.
“We’ve had to really step up our efforts to stay ahead,” Mayor David Stix Jr. said.
Retiree Jim Schiller, 57, is skeptical. “They have to limit the growth,” he said, hanging out at Mary & Moe’s Wigwam, a restaurant-casino that’s a Fernley institution.
“Fernley is basically a warehouse for people, where it used to be a rural community,” said Albert Raney, 60, a welder and mechanic who lives in nearby Hazen.
According to demographer Frey, rapidly growing areas can produce mixed results. “In a way, it can breed a sense of newness and freshness and neighborliness … but also a sense of instability that comes with it – crime, political turf battles.”
With new homes starting at $200,000 or less, Fernley has attracted a number of California retirees who have sold their pricey residences to move to Northern Nevada, sometimes investing in multiple properties with the pocketed cash.
That’s a story Realtor Jeff Dakin says he hears almost daily.
“This is kind of the American psyche. It used to be ‘Go west, young man.’ Now, for Californians, it’s ‘Go east,”‘ Frey said. “In order to have this house and this land and some kind of local autonomy, (people are) willing to trade off other kinds of amenities, maybe commute a little further . . . and not have the sort of cushy urban lifestyle you might have in Los Angeles.”
And as the newcomers roll in, home values are crawling upward – although not at the breakneck pace of Las Vegas. There, although growth is slowing, houses appreciated 53.7 percent during the third quarter this year – the highest gain in the nation.
Toni Patterson’s $100,000 house in Fernley has roughly doubled in value since 2000. “The economy’s picking up,” said Patterson, 54. Her daughter successfully has invested in local real estate, “buying and selling like mad.”
Nevada’s lack of corporate and personal income taxes and low workers’ compensation rates have helped lure businesses here.
“With the un-business-friendly atmosphere in California, you’ve got so many companies that are looking to get out in order to survive, let alone grow,” Weisinger said.
He ticked off several California businesses that have fled, such as Production Pattern & Foundry Co., an aluminum-casting outfit that is leaving San Leandro for Mound House.
Fernley is home to several large corporations, including an Amazon.com facility and the printing company Quebecor World Inc.
In the meantime, Fernley’s fledgling government is scrambling to keep up.
While some old-timers grouse about the “prune pickers” from California “citifying” their community, Moe Royel, co-founder of 43-year-old Mary & Moe’s, takes a philosophical view of Fernley’s ongoing transformation.
“You can’t stop progress,” he said.
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