Las Vegas Sun

November 21, 2018

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Fremont Street Experience enters redevelopment suit

The downtown casino moguls slated to be given the newly constructed Fremont Street parking garage -- built using taxpayer money -- will have their own lawyer to fight for the gift.

District Judge Don Chairez on Monday allowed the Fremont Street Experience Ltd. Liability Co. and its attorney, Sam Lionel, to join in the city's fight against the Pappas family.

Although the four-story, bright red garage already has been built on the block southwest of Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street, the Pappas family wants Chairez to return ownership of a 7,000-square-foot piece of the property.

In the legal fight, the family contends that the city's Downtown Redevelopment Agency doesn't have the right to seize private property through eminent domain and then turn it over to other private individuals.

A full hearing on that issue is set for May 15 and, no matter what Chairez rules, it is expected the decision will be appealed to the state Supreme Court for the ultimate determination.

Lionel, partner in the state's largest law firm, Lionel Sawyer & Collins, will join the city's hired redevelopment attorneys from Sacramento, Calif., in preparing court motions and legal briefs for Chairez.

The Pappas family's attorney, Grant Gerber of Elko, protested the inclusion of the Fremont Street Experience company, charging that he may be buried by the paper flow from its high-powered firm.

"The Pappases have been in the fight for two years," Gerber noted.

Lionel argued the Fremont Street Experience company had "an absolute right" to be involved in the lawsuit because of the millions of dollars it stands to garner when given the property.

He indicated the city redevelopment agency's Sacramento lawyers can't adequately represent the private company that also controls the canopy-covered downtown street in front of the casinos.

Chairez disagreed with that position, but said that since his objective is to create as complete a record as possible for the Supreme Court, it is logical to include the company that wants to protect its anticipated ownership of the city-funded project.

The judge promised that his law clerk, Elizabeth La Macchia, would help research any issues raised by the redevelopment agency and the Fremont Street Experience company.

In the Pappas case, Chairez has questioned the city's authority to seize private property and turn it over to other private individuals in the name of redevelopment.

In a prior challenge to such redevelopment seizures, Chairez ruled that the redevelopment agency couldn't condemn part of the Aztec casino on Las Vegas Boulevard near Sahara Avenue and turn it over to the Stratosphere hotel-casino.

The city chose not to appeal that decision, which began a domino effect in eminent domain court cases against the city's redevelopment plans.

Chairez commented Monday that the Fremont Street Experience company's desire to join the Pappas case may be a reaction to his previous ruling.

In next month's hearing, Chairez said he wants to know how the redevelopment agency determined the Pappas property -- and other parcels in the block -- were defined as "blighted" and thus legally susceptible to being taken over.

The city's redevelopment attorneys have argued that the courts simply must accept the city's determination about what constitutes "blight."

Chairez noted that in California, appeals courts have overturned eminent domain seizures when there have been unsubstantiated declarations of "blight" -- including one case where a golf course was declared blighted.

Mark Wasser, the city's redevelopment attorney from Sacramento, said at a prior court hearing that he is "unconcerned" with the issue of blight.

Gerber suggested that the family's property couldn't be blighted because it always brought in steady income for the Pappases. The family was the landlord for several small shops and businesses on the property.

On Monday, Chairez noted that U.S. Supreme Court decisions state that cities legally can condemn private property if it is for a public use.

Gerber didn't dispute that, but commented, "I don't think the Supreme Court ever would decide that (building a garage and giving it to private entities) is a public use."