Las Vegas Sun

October 22, 2018

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Residents blast beltway ‘shortcuts’

THIS is the first week of April, but Bob Hall is in no mood for fooling around.

The 63-year-old Sun City resident is not amused by the way the city and county and the Howard Hughes and Del Webb corporations have greased the skids for constructing the beltway just uphill from his brand new fairway-front home.

Hall is mad as hell, in fact, and he's telling the world about it.

The former owner of a Hawaiian merchant banking company has held, with some community groups, three public forums this week before hundreds of Sun City and Summerlin residents preaching beltway brimstone.

He criticizes the county's enforcement of dust regulations -- and his complaints have led to at least two enforcement actions in the western beltway corridor.

He also criticizes Del Webb for not fully disclosing the effects of the beltway project -- a stance that the corporation vigorously contests.

But Hall is especially upset with the environmental study process for the 4 1/2-mile section of the beltway that will be built just over the backyard walls of hundreds of Sun City and Summerlin residents.

"I've looked at maybe a thousand environmental impact studies," Hall says, "and I've never seen one like this one here. This one is a scandal, it's an outrage, it's a blatant fraud."

What steams Hall and other Sun City residents is the way the county and city of Las Vegas, in an effort to speed up construction of the beltway, short-circuited the federal environmental impact study process.

The county conducted the first part of the federal study, called Tier 1, to analyze the environmental effects of three possible alignments of the beltway. Tier 1 found, according to Bruce Arkell, county beltway coordinator, that the road can be built anywhere in the 1,100-foot swath studied.

Instead of doing a full-blown Tier 2 environmental study, which would have taken 18 months to approve, the county decided to conduct an "environmental assessment," which takes four to six months to approve.

While that shortcut may have made sense to elected officials under the gun to relieve traffic congestion in the booming northwest, Hall and others say it is sacrificing the health, property values and peace of mind of thousands of residents.

Hall says he's identified in the Tier 1 document 162 places where environmental impact questions are put off to the Tier 2 study. Then to save time, Hall fumes, the county dropped the full Tier 2 study.

"This dispensing of Tier 2 without any notice to the public is the greatest example of environmental fraud I have ever seen. What they're trying to do is evade federal impact law."

Unfortunately for Hall's argument, federal officials don't appear to agree. While the process is admittedly unusual in this case, officials say, there is no question of fraud or breaking any laws.

According to Alan Friesen, assistant administrator for the Federal Highway Administration's Nevada Division, everything is in order.

"We have been quite involved in the process as to whether it fits federal law and regulations," Friesen says. "We have assured that the environmental study has met federal environmental rules."

Actually, Friesen says, his agency has no jurisdiction at all in the project at this time because no federal money is being used for the design and construction of the western section of the beltway.

Major excavation has been done by Howard Hughes from Cheyenne Avenue south to Hualpai Way and the graded dirt road is being heavily used by gravel and construction trucks, but it's all been done with private money on private land. As part of a development agreement that saved the county millions, Howard Hughes was required to excavate the beltway facility and dedicate the land to the county.

To date, Friesen and Arkell say, the only federal money involved is a contribution by the highway administration to the environmental study.

Hall has gotten a 1994 highway administration document, which he calls a "smoking gun," showing that the beltway project was authorized to receive $3.8 million for "preliminary engineering."

But Wayne Kinder, area engineer for the Nevada division of the Federal Highway Administration, says he just checked and the county has gotten only $460,000 of that money so far, for use in the Tier 1 and environmental assessment studies.

Friesen says the only reason the federal agency is involved is so the county can keep open the possibility of using federal money on beltway design and construction in the future.

Besides, he and Arkell say, if the environmental assessment now under way finds significant problems, the county would then have to go back and do a full Tier 2 study to be eligible for federal funds.

Even if the county then decided to forgo the Tier 2 study and forget about federal funds, Kinder says, it's not legally clear that the county would even have to pay the $460,000 back, much less be liable for fraud.

On a $400 million-plus project, Arkell says, $460,000 doesn't cause a lot of furrowed brows.

To save time, Arkell admits, "we took a gamble that we wouldn't find any show-stoppers" in terms of environmental impacts.

"In our opinion, we haven't."

Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, however, are not so comfortable with the way the process has been handled.

EPA Region 9 spokesman Randy Wintropp says the Clark County beltway is "really an unusual" example of the National Environmental Policy Act process. In fact, he says, it's "the first time in our region a major highway project has followed the NEPA process in this way."

Normally, Wintropp says, the environmental impact study would be completed before ground is broken on the project. And that's the way, Wintropp says, the EPA "believes it should happen" if a community wants federal money.

The EPA, he says, will "continue to investigate" the project.

But Wintropp admits the decision on whether the project ultimately qualifies for federal money will be made by the Federal Highway Administration, which puts the ball in Friesen's office.

The EPA, in other words, agrees with Hall that the cart has gotten before the horse. But they don't necessarily agree with his conclusions.

"The (environmental impact statement) is talking about something that's going on today," Hall says of the beltway excavation. "The county has waived their right to claim this is a county road."

In fact, however, the worst thing the county may have done is waive its right to use federal funds on the beltway.

But city and county officials knew that back in June when they called a news conference to announce the agreement to accelerate the beltway schedule.

The agreement was touted by Las Vegas Mayor Jan Laverty Jones and City Councilman Matthew Callister and County Commissioners Bruce Woodbury and Paul Christensen as an example of the city and county cooperating to creatively solve pressing problems, even if it might eventually sacrifice federal funding.

"This resolution is in the best interest of the entire community," Jones said at the time.

Hall and others respectfully disagree.

The "abuse of federal law," Hall says, will likely end up in federal court.

But county beltway coordinator Arkell says Hall is simply wrong.

The federal government has no say in the construction of a local road, Arkell says. And unlike California or Hawaii, where Hall moved from, Nevada has no state laws requiring environmental studies to build a local road.

"That's one of the positives and negatives, I suppose, of this area," Arkell says.

"These people have come from other places where the rules are different. I could make an argument that that's part of the reason they moved here."

Regardless of whether federal money is ultimately involved or not, Arkell says the county is committed to dealing with all the environmental problems associated with the beltway.

For example, he says, the county has agreed to design and build a 50-foot landscaped buffer zone between the beltway and the edge of Sun City, and they've agreed to move the Cheyenne interchange away from Sun City homes.

The community has said through its elected officials that it wants the beltway done quickly, he says. The county Public Works Department is just trying to do that.

There are good aspects of federal environmental laws, he says, but the full environmental impact statement process is a "time-eater" that fast-paced Las Vegas may not be able to afford -- or need.

"Do you address the environmental issues any better than the way we're doing it?" he asks. "I don't think so."