Sin City keeps its fringes wild

Las Vegans rally in an unprecedented fight to preserve open space

  • Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area near Las Vegas

    RYAN SLATTERY
 

LAS VEGAS, Nevada — Over Dean Walker’s right shoulder is the Vegas Strip, with its line of casinos shining in the late afternoon sun. Over his left is Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, a mountain-biking and climbing mecca that also protects the ancient archaeological sites of as many as six American Indian cultures in a colorful landscape of cross-bedded Aztec sandstone.

But here, between the two, is Blue Diamond Hill, a buffer between the press of urban growth and Red Rocks’ natural beauty. It’s not a pretty sight: After decades of blasting at the James Hardie Gypsum Mine, the “hill” is nothing more than a scarred crater.

This March, developer Jim Rhodes bought the 2,400-acre mine site for $53.8 million, and announced plans to build 5,400 homes. “Jim is a visionary,” says Walker, a spokesman for the developer. “We come up here and look at it and say, ‘Wow, how awful.’ He can look at this devastated site and see beauty: parks and homes and green spaces.”

But many Las Vegans would rather leave Blue Diamond Hill undeveloped, and they have rallied in what some say is the city’s biggest anti-development fight ever.

“For years, people felt anything a developer requested was a done deal,” says Phil Guerrero, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management, which manages Red Rocks. But this time, he says, “It wasn’t just the folks in Blue Diamond fighting. It was local, state and federal political figures. People in the whole valley came together and said, ‘Enough is enough.’ ” Nonetheless, it would be an uphill battle against one of Las Vegas’ most influential developers, a fight that would go all the way to the state Legislature.

600 million years in the making

Rhodes started building homes in 1985 and has become one of the city’s most influential developers. He’s responsible for nearly a dozen communities and has built more than 6,000 homes across the growing valley.

At Blue Diamond Hill, Rhodes faced tight zoning restrictions that limited construction to one home on every two acres. But he set out to change that by asking the county commissioners to alter local zoning laws.

He has close ties to the seven-member county commission: Three of the commissioners work for law and engineering firms whose services Rhodes has employed. (Rhodes sued a fourth commissioner, Mark James, for attempting to further restrict development near Red Rocks. Rhodes claimed James, an attorney, had a conflict of interest because he once advised Rhodes on purchasing the property. The suit was later dropped.)

But in April, before the commission could act, state Sen. Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, introduced a bill that would lock in the county’s existing zoning regulations — overriding local politicians’ ability to change them. It was a move Titus had been advocating since 2001, as part of a managed-growth plan to save Red Rocks from what she calls “disastrous” overdevelopment.

“It took 600 million years to create the Red Rocks,” Titus says. “It takes one developer to destroy it.”

Days later, Nevada’s U.S. senators, Harry Reid and John Ensign, suggested the Bureau of Land Management use money from public-land sales to buy and rehabilitate the land so it could be used as a park and picnic area.

But Rhodes was undeterred by the public uproar, even after a portable toilet on the mine site was spray-painted with the words “Mobile home by Rhodes.” Rhodes responded with a media blitz that included radio and television ads and a three-page full-color insert in local newspapers. In his ad, Rhodes called the Titus bill “misguided,” saying it would “set an unhealthy radical precedent” for state control over local development.

“A mine is a terrible thing to waste”

The May 10 Senate hearing on Titus’ bill was delayed an hour as Rhodes’ workers and Red Rock supporters exchanged words and battled for seats in the crammed hall. Rhodes chartered six buses for his workers, fed them breakfast and handed out matching blue T-shirts that read “A MINE is a terrible thing to waste” and “We support a fair hearing.”

Rhodes said his development would reclaim a wasteland and “complement the natural wonder of Red Rock.” He argued that his master-planned community would not be visible from the park’s scenic loop, and that it would have little impact on traffic; stargazers, he said, would still have uninterrupted views of the heavens because of glare-free lighting. But Rhodes’ opponents countered that the project would bring congestion and air pollution, and damage the view.

Both houses of the state Legislature unanimously approved Titus’ bill, and Gov. Kenny Guinn signed it into law on May 19. Further restrictions were put in place when the county approved an ordinance that sets strict design standards around Red Rocks and protects scenic ridgelines.

“We need to protect areas where record-setting growth threatens our ability to enjoy the wilderness,” says commissioner James.

Now, Sens. Reid and Ensign say they will continue their push to buy Rhodes out with federal money. The Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act has brought in approximately $459.2 million from the sale of 8,830 acres of BLM-owned land since 1998, and the first priority for that money is to purchase “environmentally sensitive” land in Clark County.

A pending appraisal will determine the fair market value of the land, while restoration costs have yet to be calculated (the mine’s operators have put up $633,000 toward the cleanup). Reclaiming the land for use as a park would require slope reshaping, drainage construction and the removal of all mining roads. Native vegetation such as creosote, yucca and Mormon tea would also need to be planted.

Meanwhile, Rhodes attorney Paul Larsen has hinted about a possible lawsuit challenging the county ordinance, and Walker says development plans will move forward. “He didn’t buy this land to sell it back to the government and make a profit,” Walker says. “We would rather not build an elitist community of multimillion dollar homes. But if that’s the only choice he has, he is prepared to do so.”

The author is a freelance writer living in Las Vegas.

Rhodes Homes 702-730-4300, www.redrockissues.org

Friends of Red Rock Canyon 702-255-8743, www.friendsofredrockcanyon.org

Red Rock Committee, Southern Nevada Group of the Sierra Club www.nevada.sierraclub.org.

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