Las Vegas Sun

April 20, 2019

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Lawmakers seek expanded audit of airport land sales

Two state lawmakers want Clark County officials to expand their audit of McCarran International Airport land deals to include land taken by condemnation or eminent domain.

Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, D-Las Vegas, and Assemblyman David Parks, D-Las Vegas, asked Clark County Manager Thom Reilly to include the additional work in a letter sent Feb. 15. The lawmakers asked Reilly to provide the information to them by March 10 because it "is necessary for the Legislature to consider any statutory changes."

In a written response to the legislators' letter Reilly said that the task set by the legislators could not be completed until the current audit is finished. County officials estimate that the audit is expected to take about two more months to complete.

"I apologize for the delay, however, depending on the results of the current audit I will consider requesting an audit be completed on land acquired through eminent domain or condemnation," Reilly states in his Feb. 25 response letter.

The current audit is focused on about 5,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land acquired by the airport since 1998, county spokesman Erik Pappa said.

"We didn't want to distract from the the audit we are currently conducting," Pappa said of why eminent domain and condemnation were not added to the audit.

Pappa said the county has agreed to cooperate with members of the Legislative Counsel Bureau in gathering information on land acquired through condemnation, as requested by Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, D-Henderson.

Pappa said that the airport has acquired about 20 properties through condemnation since 1995.

Elaine Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the Clark County Department of Aviation, said this morning that there have been instances where eminent domain has been discussed, but she couldn't recall of any examples where it had actually been used by the airport. She did say that eminent domain was not used in the Russell Road realignment project to accommodate the airport's D-Gate expansion.

The county audit is a response to questions about how the airport has swapped and sold BLM land in the so-called Cooperative Management Area, an area under airport flight paths.

The area, a swath of land given to the airport by the federal government, was designed to limit development incompatible with noise from and potential expansion of McCarran International Airport and the airport has sold or traded land, taking on deed restrictions limiting the type of development on the land.

But as the airport has sold or traded land in the area away, various deals have been called into question.

Giunchigliani said this morning that the county has been very cooperative and said state auditors were gathering information on condemnations and eminent domain actions by the airport.

"I thought this (information) was one area lacking in the county's audit," Giunchigliani said. "It's something that no one really thought of, so we're gathering the information and are hopeful that we'll be able to see it before making any decisions."

Freshman Assemblyman Scott Sibley, R-Las Vegas, has introduced a bill to require the sale or trade of most public lands be done by public auction.

Assembly Bill 312 would stop swaps of airport land, such as the controversial property deals involving McCarran.

The FBI, Metro Police, the county and the Interior Department are investigating a land-use decision by the county commission that put commercial zoning on a piece of land a county advertisement had once said could only be used as a cemetery.

Sibley's bill would require airport land to be auctioned in most cases. Exceptions could be made on deals for land for industrial development, for land to be used for public benefit or by nonprofit organizations for the development of affordable housing.

Existing law allows a county, city or town to sell, lease or otherwise dispose of an airport, air navigation facility or other related property. And the existing law permits leases and other arrangements not to exceed 50 years. This bill would prohibit those.

AB312 had 26 co-sponsors in the Assembly and 11 members of the Senate. It was referred to the Assembly Committee on Growth and Infrastructure.

The audit and investigations come after the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office brought political corruption charges against four former county commissioners in connection with a money-for-votes scheme involving a Las Vegas strip club owner.

Former Commissioner Erin Kenny, who has pleaded guilty in the strip club case, also represented much of the area where some of the airport land deals took place. Kenny represented much of the area in Enterprise and Spring Valley townships that includes the Cooperative Management Area.

It was Kenny, according to commissioners and Aviation Department officials, who insisted that a 38-acre parcel at Durango Drive and Windmill Lane be zoned master-planned residential, a use that would be out-of-bounds for any county-controlled land within the management area.

Without a commercial designation, and without the ability to build homes by any future owner, the county said one of the few, if only, uses would be as a cemetery.

Land broker Scott Gragson, the grandson of former Las Vegas Mayor Oran Gragson, bought the land and re-sold it for a $5 million profit. The new owner then tried to change the zoning and failed.

In the commission's effort to repair a broken process, the master planning for the area went through a yearlong reconsideration, which produced a commercial designation for the area. This opened the door for a matching zone change, which will allow the owner to develop the property.

Clark County Aviation Director Randy Walker said the problem came from failure to apply a deed restriction to the land restricting its use. But when prompted, he said that the issue would have been avoided altogether if Kenny and the commission had accepted the recommendation of the airport staff.

Kenny also bucked the airport and Comprehensive Planning staff in the closing days of her tenure as a commissioner in 2002, backing an effort by Las Vegas home builder Woodside Homes to put more than 300 houses near the departure runway for the airport.

The approval came despite opposition from Commissioner Bruce Woodbury, who represented the district, and the airport and planning staff at the county.