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Homeless encampment along the Truckee River on Wednesday, April 15, 2020 (Tabitha Mueller/The Nevada Independent)

After a three-hour hearing Tuesday on a restraining order against a temporary homeless shelter the City of Reno was attempting to erect on East Fourth Street, Washoe County District Court Judge David Hardy announced that the city acted within its emergency power in creating the shelter.

The decision arrives amid an ongoing lawsuit Scott Peterson, the owner of Wells RV Boat and Storage, filed against the city after it planned to move clients from a temporary shelter at the Reno Events Center to a temporary campground-style shelter located near Peterson’s business. Officials began using the Reno Events Center as a shelter near the end of March.

“How our government and officials act during these unprecedented times will either promote or erode the public confidence in our institutions of power,” Hardy said, warning of the need to carefully exercise emergency powers.

The Tuesday hearing addressing the temporary restraining order against the shelter was just one battle in a greater conflict over the legality of the temporary shelter. The attorneys and judge are scheduling an evidentiary hearing which will review what potential harm the shelter presents to nearby property owners and decide whether a permanent injunction is necessary. 

A since-rescheduled event from The Row, a resort and casino group that includes the Eldorado, Silver Legacy and Circus Circus casinos in Downtown Reno, along with a desire to use the Reno Events Center to help spur an economy devastated by the coronavirus, prompted city officials to close the shelter and create a temporary site at East Fourth Street. The complaint from Peterson and subsequent restraining order, however, halted the city’s plans to vacate the Reno Events Center by Aug. 3. City and county officials are still housing unsheltered populations at the center.

“I'm very thankful that Judge Hardy sided with the City and its efforts to protect and care for our most vulnerable community members,” Councilwoman Neoma Jardon, a representative on the Community Homelessness Advisory Board, texted The Nevada Independent. She added that unsheltered populations may begin moving into the shelter next Tuesday or Wednesday. 

Mayor Hillary Schieve echoed Jardon's sentiment in a text message to The Nevada Independent and said she was grateful for Hardy's recognition of the "difficult balance during such unprecedented times."

Though the judge concluded it would be “inappropriate to intervene and disapprove of the city’s responses to the global pandemic,” he questioned the city’s urgency to move clients from the events center to the temporary shelter while the events center remained unused, despite its stated desire to resume conferences and convention operations at the Reno Events Center amid a pandemic.

Peterson’s lawyer, John Gallagher, argued on Tuesday that the shelter would irreparably harm his client’s business and said the city did not follow the required procedures to construct the shelter, including not filing for a special use permit or giving surrounding tenants proper notification. He characterized the city's attempt to avoid standard procedures because of an emergency as trying "to fit a round peg in a square hole."

"We're not really engaging in an emergency. We're engaging in this fallacy that we've got to get the homeless people out of the downtown events center, even though we can't use it," Gallagher said. "Then we're going to cost the taxpayers a bunch of money by creating this, this thing, not the least of which is we're going to trample Scott Peterson and Well's RV family about all their rights to participate in this process.’”

Assistant City Attorney Jon Shipman responded that the circumstances of the pandemic called for a hasty procedure that fit the city's parameters for an emergency and emphasized the temporary nature of the shelter.

"I can say today that if [there is a permanent shelter at the site], it will have gone through every land use approval, health code approval, open meeting law approval, building code approval that needs to be done before it would be permanent,” Shipman said. “And at that point in time, the public, Mr. Gallagher's client, everybody would have a part in that public process to say whether or not this makes sense."

The temporary nature of the shelter will not cause irreparable harm to Peterson or the tenants surrounding the shelter, Hardy determined. He also called for more clarification on the city’s use of the word “temporary,” and reminded attorneys that the “temporary sheltering must indeed be temporary.”

Hardy stressed that the larger issue of homelessness in the region will not be solved in this decision and that the court is an independent body that serves as an essential part of the checks and balances within government.

“The question of how our community will help its citizens experiencing homelessness has existed for decades before the pandemic and will remain a question to be answered in the future,” he said.

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