Las Vegas Sun

February 21, 2019

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Residents try to save Bonnie Springs Ranch from development. But how?

Bonnie Springs Motel

Mikayla Whitmore

A look at Bonnie Springs Ranch in Las Vegas, NV on June 25, 2016.

The public backlash was swift.

Recently, news broke that Bonnie Springs Ranch would be redeveloped. The petting zoo and Wild West town would give way to luxury homes and a smaller public area with an inn, restaurant and event space.

Perhaps tired of watching old casinos implode, Las Vegans clenched onto their nostalgia with both fists. Visitation to Bonnie Springs since the announcement has markedly increased, according to an employee there. The advocacy group Save Red Rock says it received “60,000 engagements on the issue.” Two “Save Bonnie Springs” online petitions have garnered a combined 51,478 signatures and counting.

“Being born and raised here in Las Vegas, I have seen this city grown beyond its originality,” petition signer Elizabeth R. wrote. “It’s important for us to hold on the little culture that we do still have!”

Another signer, Glynis S., said she spent her wedding night at Bonnie Springs Ranch in 1971. She wrote: “Developing the land to build mansions will take away the rights of the public to enjoy its beauty.”

The comments go on and on, many displaying a similar passion to save Nevada’s cultural heritage, preserve one of the area’s family destinations and protect the unique natural beauty of Red Rock.

Most signers expressed a sense of collective ownership over the private property. There are earnest calls to turn it into a historic site or convert it into protected parkland. But how does one go about changing private property into a public good?

Passion without a plan

Both petitions are high on enthusiasm but low on specifics. So far, no leader or organization has stepped up to pilot the effort.

Save Red Rock does not oppose the project since it doesn’t go against their “Keep Red Rock Rural” motto.

Petition creator Robyn Reynon said she doesn’t have any specific plans for action beyond keeping her petition open. “I’m not sure — aside from definitely taking my kids down before it closes,” she said in an email message. “But of course if anything comes up to where it could be kept open, anything I could do to help I would.”

Petition creator Peter Hall cited past efforts to save Las Vegas’ Huntridge Theater from demolition as a blueprint for turning Bonnie Springs into a historical landmark. But because the ranch is well outside Las Vegas city limits, the methodology would have to be different. Hall has not responded to requests for comment.

What could be done

The challenge for activists lies in the fact that Bonnie Springs Ranch is a private property being sold by one private owner to another. In such a transaction, there is generally no opening for the public to intercede. Nonetheless, there are three levels of government where activists could seek help: county, state and federal.

On the county level, activists could attend the Feb. 19 Clark County Planning Commission meeting, where the developer’s request to subdivide the property will be considered.

In the past, activists have used county zoning to slow developers.

County zoning is what led the nearby Spring Mountain Ranch property to become a State Park instead of a planned 756 home and condo development. The developer sold the property to Nevada State Parks in 1974 for $3.2 million because the Clark County Commission denied a request to have the land zoned as a high-density urban area.

The idea of development in the mountainous area was unpopular with the public. To this day, hand-drawn renderings of the never-built Spring Mountain Ranch master plan community hang in the State Park’s visitor center, a testament to what might have been.

For the planned development of Bonnie Springs Ranch, zoning is not an issue. The property is zoned for the lowest density the county has: rural use. And the developers, Joel Laub and Randall Jones, are building well under the rural zoning limits. Instead of going for high-density, the developers are following the opposite strategy: ultra-low density. They plan to build 20 homes, when the zoning allows for up to 31.

Historic designations

Many citizens have called for a historic landmark designation. But does Bonnie Springs actually count as historic?

Sure, the locale dates back to antiquity, when native populations lived there, drawn to its natural springs. Its more recent history dates back to the mid-1800s, when it was a wagon train stopover. A ranch house, a cabin and a blacksmith shop existed then.

But the main source of public connection today is the old Nevada town, a well-researched replica of a Wild West town, built in the early 1970s. The ranch as locals know it opened in the 1950s, and the petting zoo only dates back to the 1980s.

Is this history? Apparently only if the property owners think it is.

“National Register, State Register, or National Historic Landmarks are made by request of the property owner,” said Jenny Ramella, a representative of the Nevada State Parks’ Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “Even if listed in either the State or National Register, these are honorary programs and do not affect the private property owner’s rights to manage their property consistent with the requirements of local ordinances and other state statutes.”

Clark County has a historic designation, which it recently applied to the retro-hip Paradise Palms neighborhood. But it, too, comes at the request of the property owners.

Some of the history may be saved thanks to property owners. Save Red Rock, which has been working as an unofficial intermediary between the concerned public and the prior and future owners, announced Jan. 18 that “plans are in the works to relocate and preserve Bonnie Springs Old Nevada.”

A third party buyer is interested in transporting the Wild West town in full to an undisclosed new location, where it will function as an attraction. Additionally, the developers of the new Bonnie Springs are also looking into ways to incorporate and display the property’s history and artifacts in its new designs.

Protected parkland

Nature tourism is a big new thing for visitors to Las Vegas.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area first broke 1 million visitors in 2012. In six years, that number more than tripled, with Red Rock hosting 3.1 million visitors in 2018.

The Red Rock loop often reaches capacity on fair-weather weekends. The argument could be made that more parkland will be needed to meet growing demand. Bursting with natural beauty, some locals see Bonnie Springs as a perfect park candidate.

But for Bonnie Springs to become a state park, it would have to be either purchased by or donated to the state.

The property is already in escrow, being sold by the heirs of the ranch’s namesake owner, Bonnie Levinson, to the developers.

Neither party seems poised to either sell or donate the land to the state. Any sale or gift of the land to the state would require an approval through the state legislative process.

“At this time, there is no plan for State Parks to pursue acquiring this property,” Ramella said.

Advocates could contact their state representatives, but time is not on their side. Developers hope to begin construction early this spring.

Delay, delay, delay

Patrick Donnelly of the Center for Biological Diversity opposes the development of Bonnie Springs and hopes to use the partial government shutdown as a way to delay the project.

He said any questions about right-of-way for utilities, road construction or access easements that involve surrounding Bureau of Land Management property could trigger a federal nexus and possible environmental review. Due to the shutdown, questions regarding these questions cannot be answered.

“We feel that the county is not in a position to make an evaluation without answers to these key questions,” Donnelly said. He would like the county to delay any decision-making until the government reopens and questions can be answered.

Artist Checko Salgado, who was part of the successful effort to designate Nevada’s Basin and Range National Monument, has this advice for would-be activists: “The only thing is contacting people in politics. Who’s your representative? Who’s your Assembly person? Is there any impact damage done? Is there a certain type of animal in the area that the project is disturbing? Look at all these ways to put little halts in the system.” The effort to protect Basin and Range was aided by a few key factors: it was already federal land, and former Sen. Harry Reid was a proponent. Even then, it was a difficult, yearslong process.

Environmentally conscious development

In the meantime, plans for the development of Bonnie Springs remain unaltered. The developers are aware of the petitions but had no comment on them.

“If the public were to see the plans, we think they’d be in support of it,” said Nick Khilnani, a representative for developer Joel Laub.

When can the public see these plans? Khilnani said the plans are constantly changing, so there’s no set date to share them with the public.

Nonetheless, Khilnani said the goal has always been to make as little of an environmental impact on the area as possible. Plans limit environmental impact via low-density and large housing setbacks, as well as restrictions on the size of buildings and types of building materials used. Developers also plan to return disturbed areas to their natural state.