Las Vegas Sun

September 25, 2018

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Clark County considers turning 39,000 acres of public land into private development

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C. Moon Reed

Marci Henson, director of the Clark County Department of Air Quality, points to a map designating areas of potential future development.

After a recession-fueled decade of abandoned construction sites and empty houses, the Las Vegas Valley is now feeling the squeeze. Land and housing prices are rising because demand outstrips supply.

And this is just the beginning with Clark County’s population, projected to reach 2.81 million by 2050.

With the economy expanding and more people moving here, officials have a choice: Grow upwards or grow outwards. While the county has long advocated for the former, it has spent the past year also quietly setting up plans for the latter.

The Clark County Commission on Tuesday will vote on a land proposal that could open approximately 39,000 acres of federal land along Interstate 15 south of the valley, and other peripheral pockets, to private development and set aside 370,000 acres for conservation. The land could be developed for a wide range of uses, everything from housing to manufacturing centers and distribution hubs.

The proposal would also “provide for the conservation of sensitive natural areas, amend the countywide Endangered Species Act permit and convey public land to local jurisdictions, where permanent infrastructure has been built,” according to a statement.

At at June 5 open house for the proposal, Commissioner Steve Sisolak expressed apprehension about the speed of the public notification process. When asked how he would vote, Sisolak was noncommittal. He said that he might end up asking for more time.

Other stakeholders, such as environmentalists, have questions about the impact of the land proposal.

“We have fundamental concerns about Las Vegas sprawling outward in uncontrolled growth,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director of the Center for Biological Diversity. He is worried that the land proposal will strip away protections for the desert tortoise. “Science must guide how we grow; they are proposing to strip away science.”

There will be at least two environmental impact studies involving the land deal, according to officials. The first will analyze the BLM’s resource management plan and the second will analyze changes to Clark County’s Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan.

Environmental groups would rather see the county grow through high-density construction before it acquires new land.

“There are tremendous in fill-opportunities within the Las Vegas Valley,” Donnelly said. “But it’s not as cheap as developing virgin land in the middle of nowhere.”

What about water? Will there be enough to go around if we build more in an already-thirsty desert?

“Water use is one of the many factors studied and considered in developing this proposal,” says Clark County Public Information Officer Kevin MacDonald. “The Southern Nevada Water Authority maintains a 50-year water resource plan, which takes into consideration population growth over the next half-century.”

If the proposal is approved, it will go to Nevada's Washington delegation to be presented for congressional approval.