Las Vegas Sun

October 17, 2019

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Planned housing at Bonnie Springs won’t kill site’s charm, developer insists

Bonnie Springs Ranch

Mikayla Whitmore

Bonnie Springs Ranch, west of Las Vegas in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, will close to make way for new development on the 64-acre site.

The renderings are beautifully hand-drawn and colored. They depict a mountainous storybook village that could be vaguely Spanish or Italian. Visitors enter through an elegant circular driveway, pass under a charming stone archway and then the new world of Bonnie Springs Ranch opens up.

Gone are the equestrian stables, Wild West-themed town, petting zoo and train ride. In its place are picturesque buildings and a pond hugged by meadows and underlined by a natural spring. To the left: an “event barn” and outdoor amphitheater, which will be dug out against the natural slope so that the audience enjoys a mountain view. To the right: a farm-to-table restaurant, which will source produce from its surrounding gardens. Beyond that, the inn, swimming pool and more meadows.

And beyond that: the 20 residential lots that may or may not be visible, depending on the final number of trees. The developers have sufficient water rights for grounds teeming with trees, but details aren’t yet finalized. (Since the plan remains in flux, the developers didn’t disseminate the renderings, but they did allow the Las Vegas Sun to view them.)

A Beloved Community Gem

Located about 20 miles west of Las Vegas in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation area, Bonnie Springs Ranch was first developed in 1843 as a wagon train pit stop. It opened as a tourist attraction in 1958, named after co-owner Bonnie Levinson, a lively animal lover who died at age 94 in 2016.

In its six decades of operation, Bonnie Springs became a popular if quirky tradition for multiple generations of Las Vegans, complete with tales of paranormal activity. But in the latter years, there were whispers that the Levinson heirs might sell.

This week, as news of a change at Bonnie Springs became public, rumors swirled around the Internet. Other than some Clark County planning documents, details were scant, adding to the speculation. The Ranch itself declined to comment and left emails unanswered. Longtime locals feared that their desert oasis would be gone forever.

Las Vegan Robyn Reynon, a health care IT worker, started a petition on Care2Petitions to “Save Bonnie Springs.” The petition states: “Bonnie Springs is a staple of our childhood and holds dear memories. There has never been such a place in our town where wildlife and rescued animals are as well cared for and loved. Please don't let Bonnie Springs die. It is a part of Las Vegas and Nevada history and deserves to continue providing that old western, original Nevada experience.”

So far, the petition has more than 700 supporters.

Reynon’s mother worked as a performer at Bonnie Springs in the ’90s and she spent a lot of time there as a child. “It’s a great escape from the normal Vegas city life,” Reynon says. “I’m hoping my petition will help Bonnie’s family and the potential developers see how many have a love for the ranch the way it is, as well as the wildlife that live in the area. … I wish the Bonnie Springs and Red Rock areas could be left alone.”

Conservation and Development

The 64 acres that comprise Bonnie Springs Ranch went on the market at the beginning of last year.

Las Vegas native Joel Laub — known for developing the Silverado Ranch Master Plan Community as well as founding/running Astoria Homes — immediately saw an opportunity.

After four months of negotiations, he beat out other suitors in part for his plans to preserve an aspect of Bonnie Springs Ranch for the public. They want it to have a similar feel to the trees and meadows in the nearby Spring Mountain Ranch State Park.

“We know people are emotionally attached to Bonnie Springs,” says Randall Jones, a lawyer and childhood friend of Laub who partnered with him for this project. “Joel and I were both born here. We’ve grown up going to Bonnie Springs, our kids grew up going to Bonnie Springs and now my grandson is going to Bonnie Springs. We saw it as a great opportunity to do something that would be special not just for us, but for the community.”

The partners, under the name BSR6276 LLC, are still in escrow. The rumored purchase price of $31 million is incorrect, according to Jones. He declined to disclose the actual price or any other financial information.

Other than the 8.5 to 10 acres planned for public use, the rest of the property will be subdivided for housing. The land is zoned for rural use, and the plan is to build 20 residential lots, each on 2-3 acres, including large buffer zones of non-development around each home. The plan is for a 30 percent lower housing density than allowed, which has earned the approval of environmental group Save Red Rock. It also goes in stark contrast to developer Jim Rhodes, whose planned residential project on nearby Blue Diamond Hill petitioned to increase zoned density, drawing opposition from locals and environmental groups.

The Bonnie Springs homes will be required to use materials and architectural style that blend in with or complement the natural surroundings.

“The houses are not going to be giant McMansions with only 5 feet between them,” Jones says. “We want it to feel like a rural area.”

Because both partners are planning to live and own homes in the development, they are in part designing an ideal place to match their taste, which includes a focus on environmentalism. Jones notes that his partner, Laub, heads the local chapter of the Nature Conservancy and belongs to other environmental organizations.

“A very important aspect of this project for us is to be environmentally sensitive,” Jones says.

To allow for free movement of desert critters, as well as unobstructed sightlines, the exterior edges of the property will have no walls or fencing. On the flora side, the developers are working with habitat restoration specialist Soil-Tech to revegetate the area with the native plants.

Moving Forward

The careful efforts to preserve the beloved aspects of Bonnie Springs Ranch offer some solace to Reynon.

“My favorite part has always been the animals and petting zoo,” she said.

For now, the petting zoo, train ride and Wild West shows are still running, with no official close date. While there are no set deadlines, developer Jones says that once the sale is finalized he wants to move as quickly as possible without getting ahead of himself.

The goal is to minimize the amount of time that Bonnie Springs is non-operational. There is also a timeframe built into the contract to ensure that the animals are relocated in the best way possible, which the original owners will do.

But will it still be called Bonnie Springs?

Even though the new renderings all say “Bonnie Springs Ranch” in a jaunty handwritten font, it seems that the future name is not certain. The developers want to keep the name because of the history of the location. But it will require a successful negotiation with the children of the ranch's namesake for transfer of naming rights.

“It is their mother’s name,” Jones says.

No matter what it’s called, a bit of this Old Vegas tradition will continue on into the future.

“The old Bonnie Springs is closing and a new Bonnie Springs is going to be opening up,” Jones says. “It will be different for sure. A transition, no question. Sometimes transitions make people sad. I understand that. Our hope is to make a transition the everybody feels good about in the end.”