Las Vegas Sun

August 14, 2018

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Boulder City tugged between growth and protecting its small-town feel

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Mikayla Whitmore

Landowner Randy Schams has floated plans to exchange 640 acres and eventually build homes on the site of the old hospital in Boulder City.

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Boulder City has just 7,000 residential units. Residents approve any sale of public-owned land over 1 acre.

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As many as 200 homes could be built on city land now for sale near the Boulder Creek Golf Course.

With the exception of his college years at UNLV, Bret Runion has lived in Boulder City for almost four decades, having moved from Greenfield, Ind., when he was 12. A Realtor in the quaint city of about 16,000 residents, with a wife and two grown children, Runion is as invested as anyone in the success of his adopted hometown. And he has seen it shrink as a result of deflationary policies, many of which are championed by residents.

“The overall tone of people in the city is, ‘We don’t want too much growth at one time,’” Runion said. “If the city ever grows, it’s always very slowly.”

While its vintage, small-town feel is a selling point, fear of overexpansion has led to inflation and a low supply of available homes, pricing out prospective residents.

New construction is limited to 120 single-home or multiresidential units per year, only 30 of which can be built by the same individual or company, and gated communities are banned by city code. Las Vegas, Henderson and North Las Vegas have no such restrictions.

Even with the stringent cap on expansion, Boulder City hasn’t met the annual limit in more than 20 years, said community development director Brok Armantrout. That’s because of another unique restriction: While municipalities in the Las Vegas Valley rely on their city councils to determine public land sales to private owners, Boulder City residents vote on whether to approve any sale over 1 acre. Residents overwhelmingly voted that rule into their city charter in 1995.

In 14 years in his role with Boulder City, Armantrout said he has seen only four instances of approval.

“Basically, the city owns all the land,” Armantrout said. “Those who own the few (open) parcels of land are perhaps saving to build their dream homes ‘one day.’ But that ‘one day’ for many of them hasn’t come yet.”

As a result of limited inventory, prices of generally smaller and older homes in ZIP code 89005 — which covers all of Boulder City — are comparable to or higher than what you find even in the priciest areas of the valley, according to 2016 public records and real estate agent Cokie Booth, who has lived in Boulder City for about 35 years.

The average single-family residence in Boulder City sold for $327,197 last year, compared with $355,059 in ZIP code 89134 in Summerlin, $110,949 in 89101 in and around downtown Las Vegas, $459,061 in 89109 on the Strip and $307,524 in 89074 in Henderson.

Townhomes in Boulder City went for an average of $192,217, compared with $206,676 in Summerlin, $92,760 in the downtown area, $185,715 on the Strip and $190,161 in Henderson. Condos in Boulder City were the only units more on par with off-Strip Las Vegas prices. At $109,536 per unit sold in 2016, they compared more with ZIP codes 89129 and 89115 in northern areas of Las Vegas and 89014 in Henderson. “We don’t have as many affordable housing options under $399,000,” Booth said. “And that prices a lot of people out.”

Apartment complexes in Boulder City are few and far between, Runion said, and a new complex hasn’t been constructed since before 1990. While younger families in the valley trend toward renting, Boulder City real estate agents deal mostly with homebuyers.

“It’s a phenomenal place to retire, but the older buyers along with the growth controls and restrictions have displaced younger people,” said Runion, backed up by the city’s median age of about 50 in the most recent census. “Right now, if you want an entry-level house in Boulder City, you’re probably looking at something that was built in the 1930s. It’s a sacrifice, and only some people are willing to make that to live here.”

While business licenses have held steady around 2,000 for most of the past dozen years, one indication of the city’s stagnation is its high school, which had nearly 775 students in 2004. Enrollment at Boulder City High School dipped below 600 this school year for the first time in more than two decades, according to CCSD spokeswoman Michelle Booth.

With or without kids, new residents would build the property tax base to pay for more capital projects, such as a new swimming complex adjacent to the high school that has been “talked about” for over a decade, Armantrout said. Costing $15 to $30 million, the facility would replace the current ’60s-era pool, which isn’t large enough for competition — meaning Boulder City’s state championship-winning swim team now races at Las Vegas high schools. “We want to bring those teams back home so they can swim in front of our community.”

But the overarching issue is complex, Armantrout said. With residents hesitant to approve public land sales, many developers have tried and failed to build in Boulder City this decade. Randy Schams, the city’s most prominent housing developer, recently floated plans to exchange 640 acres he owns in the Eldorado Valley just west of the city’s roughly 35 square-mile residential area for an equal amount of city-owned parcels southeast of the intersection of U.S. highways 95 and 93. The proposed trade would enable Schams to build about 1,600 new homes — 500 to 600 annually — which violates the city’s growth code. Schams did not respond to multiple requests and a visit to his Boulder City office for comment.

While Schams has not yet made a formal proposal to Boulder City, its City Council approved his request in October to have the land evaluated as a site for potential development. No further action has been taken.

“(Schams) wants to make sure the city is interested in building on the land before he proposes a land swap,” Armantrout said.

Armantrout said Boulder City also was listing more than 75 acres on two parcels near Boulder Creek Golf Course, where as many as 200 additional homes could be built over the next couple of years. The 45 acres surrounding the golf course likely would yield higher-end homes, while 30 acres across the street would provide starter homes aimed at younger families. But even if the land were fully developed (the parcels have been for sale since October at a combined cost of close to $26 million), the homes would represent less than a 3 percent addition to the city’s 7,000 residential units.

According to Armantrout, the City Council is “working carefully” on a long-term plan that includes more opportunities for developers. “We’d like to see it happen, but at some point the market will dictate that,” he said. “We’ve hit a wall, and there’s not enough privately owned land right now for us to grow.”

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