Published Wednesday, April 21, 2010 | 2:01 p.m.
Updated Wednesday, April 21, 2010 | 5:55 p.m.
A divided Clark County Board of Commissioners approved a settlement Wednesday over the proposed development of land near the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.
Commissioners voted 4-3 to accept the settlement with developer Jim Rhodes after hours of sometimes emotional testimony and debate during a zoning meeting.
Rhodes owns 2,400 acres in and near the conservation area. Under the agreement, he would be allowed to develop up to 1,700 acres, but only if commissioners approve the development and a federal appeals court sides with the state on a law regulating development.
Commissioners Susan Brager, Larry Brown, Tom Collins and Steve Sisolak voted for the settlement, while Commissioners Rory Reid, Chris Giunchigliani and Lawrence Weekly voted against it.
The settlement ends the county’s legal defense of an ordinance that prohibited Rhodes from building houses on the land that once contained mines.
Rhodes can submit a “major project” application to develop the area, but county commissioners aren’t required to approve the plan. County staff estimates it would take at least a year for any project to get approval.
The portions that are off limits to development are in the Red Rock conservation area and near Blue Diamond. The settlement also bars Rhodes from using State Route 159, which goes through the conservation area, to access any development once construction is complete.
Commissioners listened to hours of testimony from residents and interest groups before beginning their own debate on the issue.
“This has been one of the most difficult decisions … that I’ve had to do as a commissioner,” said Brager, who represents the area.
Brown said that if the county were to reject the settlement and the court ruled against the county, commissioners would be forced to allow more development with less oversight than they would get from the settlement agreement.
“I see the piecemeal development of this area as something that could go terribly wrong,” Brown said.
But Giunchigliani and Reid said Red Rock was too important to the community to allow any development.
“When do we choose to fight?” an emotional Giunchigliani asked. “If you don’t fight now, when do you?”
Reid, who is the board’s chairman, echoed the fight theme.
“I’ve been here seven-and-a-half years, and I’m leaving soon. And I think that there are times when compromise is appropriate and there’s times when you need to take a stand, and I do not want part of my legacy to be that I compromised on Red Rock,” Reid said.
After the vote, someone in the audience shouted “shame on you” to the commissioners, and some members of the public used the meeting’s public comment period to condemn the decision.
Clark County passed an ordinance in 2003 to block development of the area near Red Rock Canyon. The county’s law mirrored a state law.
In 2005, Rhodes’ company, Gypsum Resources LLC, sued the county over the ordinance. Since then, a federal court has said the state law was unconstitutional. A trial on the county’s ordinance was scheduled for May 3.
County lawyers said since the court has already struck down the state law, they stood little chance of winning their case, so the settlement was the best way for the county to avoid legal costs and maintain more control over the development.
The state’s case continues to work its way through the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Rep. Dina Titus, who as a state legislator sponsored the bill now in question, spoke to the board by phone from Washington, and asked commissioners to reject the settlement.
“If the Clark County Board of Commissioners decides it is in its best interest to settle, I believe strongly that the settlement agreement must be conditioned on the result of the state’s appeal,” she said. “The settlement should make clear that no actual land development can occur until the state’s appeal is resolved. It should further provide that the developer has no particular rights while the appeal is pending, even if the county approves the developer's major project application during that period.”
Kevin Powers, a lawyer with the state’s Legislative Counsel Bureau, also told commissioners to either reject the settlement or make it contingent on the state’s appeal.
But Chief Deputy District Attorney Rob Warhola, who led the county’s negotiations with Gypsum, said it was too late to make such major changes to the agreement.
After commissioners sided with Warhola, Powers said the state could still seek a stay from the courts to keep development from happening until the appeal is resolved.
Brager and Sisolak were angry Titus was allowed to testify by phone, and asked why regular citizens who are unable to attend the meeting weren’t given the same opportunity. County staff then made a phone line available for people to call in later in the meeting and speak on the issue.