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March 25, 2019

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Commissioners delay vote on Station tower

More than three hours of sometimes acrimonious testimony and cross talk Wednesday failed to produce a decision from the Clark County Commission on a proposed 300-foot tower and 1,500-room resort in Summerlin.

Most of the commissioners said they saw value in Station Casinos' plans for the site near Charleston Boulevard and the Las Vegas Beltway but said they could not support the controversial tower. In the end they punted.

The commissioners told both opponents and advocates of the Red Rock Station plans to try to work out a compromise and scheduled a Jan. 7 vote that, they warned, would be conclusive.

"There is room for compromise," Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates told the packed Commission Chambers. "There has to be compromise."

Last-ditch efforts by both sides to find common ground as recently as Monday night failed to produce an agreement, but Station executives said they would go back to the drawing board following the zoning hearing Wednesday. As an impetus they got a clear message from the majority of the seven commissioners: They will not approve the 300-foot tower.

Commissioner Mark James said during the meeting that he wanted to see a neighborhood casino as envisioned under legislation he sponsored as a state senator in 1998. That legislation restricted the number and size of new neighborhood casinos in Clark County, and the spirit -- if not the letter -- of the law was to prevent new neighborhood casinos of more than 100 feet in height.

James said he hopes the upcoming talks will produce an acceptable solution for both sides, or at least many of the participants.

"If they don't, I'm prepared to make a decision," he said. "I think it was made clear that we're not going to support the proposal as it is."

Station Casinos owns the land for the new casino, which the company had planned to make the corporate headquarters and centerpiece of its gaming empire. The project would also be the centerpiece of Howard Hughes Corp.'s Summerlin Center, with similarly sized buildings planned next door.

Station Casinos already has the right to build a casino, but not at the scale the plans called for -- by law, the corporation can only build to 100 feet.

Commission Chairman Chip Maxfield succinctly summed up the sentiment of his colleagues: "I won't support denial at 100 feet and I won't support approval at 300 feet.

Echoing James on the deadline, Maxfield said: "When this matter comes back on the seventh, I'm going to conclude it with something. I don't know what it is, but I'm going to conclude it with something."

Although the clear majority of the thousands of letters, e-mails and phone calls to the county were opposed to the project, both sides squared off with parades of testimony Wednesday.

Supporters, including Station Casinos' planners and executives from the Howard Hughes Corp., the company that designed Summerlin and continues to build the master-planned community, said the project will not be visible from most of Red Rock Canyon. That's the most divisive issue. They also said it would serve as an employment center for thousands of people, including many Summerlin residents, and they said it made sense as an example of "smart growth," bringing jobs away from the central Strip.

"There is no view of Red Rock Canyon from this site," said land-use consultant Greg Borgel. "That is one reason why Summerlin Center is here."

The casino and the adjacent buildings, including planned 250-foot office buildings approved a year ago by the county commission, are part of a "fundamental concept" to have an alternative downtown in Summerlin, Borgel said.

"It was important from a general community perspective for Summerlin to have its own downtown," Borgel said. "It was to be substantially independent.

"The project here is not designed as a Palace Station or similar casino," he said. "It's intended to have a regional appeal."

To do that, he said, the resort would need "to have an upper floor ... with a gourmet restaurant that looks over the Strip."

And to do that, the casino tower would have to be above 250 feet, the height approved across the street toward the east, Borgel told the commission.

But opponents, many of them Summerlin residents, said the project is too big for their neighborhoods. Palace Station or the Suncoast casino a few miles east are the appropriate size for a new casino at the site, some of them said.

"Similar to the Suncoast -- we're OK with that," said Gabriel Lither, one of the leaders of Summerlin Residents for Responsible Growth, the group created to fight the proposal. A casino of that size would be a significant reduction for Station Casinos. The Suncoast is 130 feet high and has about 430 rooms.

Bernie Weber, another Summerlin resident, said a big casino will draw crime, prostitution and drug dealers to the tony west side of the Las Vegas Valley, "ruining what we have, which is a quality of life."

"I suggest if Station wants to build a mega-destination, they do it on the Strip," Weber said.

Susan Potts, a local Sierra Club member, joined with Friends of Red Rock and others to decry the impact the tower would have on the view.

"We're not opposed to growth and development," Potts, a resident of the village of Blue Diamond, said. "Smart growth to us does not mean any buildings over 100 feet in that area. We are concerned about the view."

Lisa Mayo-De Riso, a community activist who has battled a number of land-use issues before the commission, represented the nonprofit group Scenic Nevada. She was concerned that approval would set the stage for more tall towers on the west side of the valley.

"To approve this today is in fact setting the stage for higher towers along the Red Rock front range," she said.

Scott Neilson, Station Casinos executive vice president, said the project was on "truly a unique site, next to the beltway and 4 million square feet of office space, and so would not set a precedent."

That didn't sway James.

"This would be one of the tallest, I think it would be the tallest, neighborhood casino we would have," James said. "I think to say it doesn't set a precedent would be somewhat naive of us. If we approve a 300-foot tower today, no matter what anybody else says, that would set a precedent."

Those speaking for the project included representatives of the Carpenters Union, who argued that the $400 million investment planned by Station Casinos for the project would bring jobs.

Those opposed to the project included the Culinary Union, which represents thousands of resort workers -- but not those at Station Casinos. The Culinary Union paid for mailers and an automated phone campaign to bolster the outcry against the project.

At the end of the meeting, both sides said they would work towards a compromise.

"We're more than willing to continue to meet with them," Lither said.

But, he told the commissioners, he hoped the January meeting would finally decide the issue.

"This has been a very trying time for the residents on the issue, he said. "It is very difficult for us to come back month after month. I do hope that if we negotiate that both sides negotiate in good faith."

Station Casinos representatives said they would enter the renewed talks with open minds -- and added that they would likely have to make substantial revisions to what they had planned.

"I think we need to go back to the drawing board, honestly, and play with some different heights," Neilson said.

He said that he expected to set up a meeting to talk about how to proceed this morning.