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July 29, 2014

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Boulder City residents keep a close eye on growth

It's noon at the Backstop Sports Pub in Boulder City and a handful of men gripping beer mugs at the long wooden bar have their eyes focused on a small TV set.

World Cup players scrambling around on a big-screen television are ignored. Not a word is spoken about the Chicago Bulls' run for a sixth championship title.

These bar patrons are more concerned about what unfolded at the Boulder City Council meeting rebroadcast on the town's public-access channel, BCTV.

And all the customers have strong opinions about whether the local government is doing its best to thwart their biggest concern: growth.

In a typical sports bar, customers would request the channel be changed to SportsCenter. But Boulder City residents are anything but typical.

In a town where residents and government officials often butt heads, the two sides agree to this: Boulder City is unique.

Tourists who motor over the mountain see a refreshing little town, but there is much more to Boulder City.

This is not simply a lakeside hamlet. It's a 200-square-mile city -- the largest in Nevada in terms of land mass and four times the area of San Francisco -- but it has only a little more than 14,000 residents. It is the only town in the state in which all gaming is illegal, and its residents wield an unusual amount of power.

"People like to live in Boulder City because it's smaller than where they came from," said Dennis McBride, who has written three books about the town in which he was born and raised.

"But if you've been here for any length of time and pay close attention, you can find the worm in the apple."

While there are many intriguing facets to Boulder City, perhaps the most unusual is its strict growth ordinance -- no more than 120 housing units can be built each year -- and residents' heavy involvement in land deals.

A law passed in 1996 says that if the city wishes to sell an acre or more of its land, it must seek voter approval. Boulder City owns all but 6 square miles of land within its boundaries, so the issue arises regularly.

Once the land-sale petition was approved, residents felt at ease. They were confident that development and growth in their town was in their hands and that Boulder City wouldn't become another Las Vegas or Laughlin.

"We like the sense of isolation," McBride said. "We don't want to be one huge city like the Las Vegas-Henderson metroplex. Just seeing Henderson creep up the hill is unsettling."

And that's why few project proposals are approved without lengthy debates triggered by a handful of residents. These activists, McBride included, aren't concerned about money. They want to preserve their small town.

They spend hours thoroughly researching each issue to ready themselves for public hearings. An Internet website produced by citizens makes results of surveys and fact-finding missions available.

"I'm sure sometimes they would rather not hear our problems," Mary Shope Wiles, another Boulder City activist, said of the City Council. "On the other hand, if they don't know what we're thinking, how can they govern us?"

When Bill Smith took his seat on the City Council a year ago, he was overwhelmed by the community's involvement.

"I was really impressed with how community members were involved and the amount of time and energy they put in for the betterment of the community," Smith said. "It keeps you on your toes."

The latest battle that sparked mistrust between residents and local government can be traced back two years to when the city entertained a proposal to build a landfill in the Eldorado Valley.

Proponents of the dump said it would bring about $1 million a year into city coffers, but opponents argued it would not only be ugly but would also disrupt a preservation area for desert tortoises in the 165-square-mile, city-owned valley.

"That issue divided this town like it hadn't been divided since incorporation in the 1950s," McBride said. "It gave us the impression that the council is an autonomous organization that does pretty much what it wants to do."

The council decided in March to keep the landfill at its Utah Street site after residents strongly objected to the Eldorado Valley proposal.

Not long after the landfill project died and the council members who presided over it left office, the MGM Grand hotel-casino's proposal for a golf course surfaced.

By offering to lease land to the MGM for 40-plus years rather than sell it, the city government ventured into territory that is once again causing residents to be suspicious.

If the city were to sell the 800 acres that are home to popular hiking and biking trails, the deal and the project would have to be approved by Boulder City residents. But leases don't require a vote.

"They can circumvent the spirit of the law," McBride said. "But the question is, will they? When the landfill issue died, it took trust and goodwill with it."

City Manager John Sullard said the MGM proposal is another example of the citizens misunderstanding the government's intentions. He said the city is not dodging voters by leasing the land but is simply making the best deal for the community.

Comparing the MGM lease proposal with England's long-term but now ended presence in Hong Kong, Sullard said, "Ninety-nine years sounds like a long time, but Hong Kong is in China now, buildings and all."

Sullard admits it's difficult to operate a city when nearly every land deal must be approved by residents who are growth-conscious. And it will only become more of a hardship now that the state is basing its funding on growth.

Boulder City administrators, staring at a shrinking budget, know what their residents want and what the city needs to survive.

With a limited property tax base, the city can't afford to pay its employees well and often loses police officers and firefighters to its more affluent neighbors -- Henderson and Las Vegas.

"The market is escalating in the valley, and we have our hands tied in competing with them," Sullard said.

If the citizens' opposition pressures MGM to pull out of Boulder City, it will be the second major project rejected by residents in two years. The golf course and landfill reportedly would have brought an additional $2 million to Boulder City's general fund -- an increase of about 10 percent.

"There are landfill proposals, power-plant proposals, industrial-area proposals ...," McBride said. "It's not like people don't want development, but Boulder City residents have more foresight. They're not interested in money."

The growth ordinance prevents the city from relying on property taxes, which amount to a mere $500,000 annually. Sullard said the 120-units-a-year limit includes every apartment in a complex. Developers have to bank units over the years to build apartments or condominiums.

Applications for building permits are accepted at the beginning of each fiscal year, but once 120 have been issued, no more are distributed. Because of the demand for housing, homes cost about 30 percent more than in the valley.

"When you buy a home in Boulder City, you're buying the community," Sullard said. "It's uncommon for citizens to have so much control over property. But it's unusual for a city to own so much property."

Some people say Boulder City's budget may be hurt by the controlled-growth ordinance, but Sullard said it will help the community in the long run.

"If growth paid for itself, L.A. would be the richest city in the world," Sullard said.

The Boulder City ordinance most often seen as damaging to the city's finances is the law that requires a vote on land sales. Capital-improvement projects previously were funded by land sales, and now the city is forced to search for alternative sources of revenue.

The city is left to look at sprucing up its historic downtown to coax more of the 5 million tourists who annually pass through Boulder City to stay and spend their money in the town.

"A lot of businesses in Boulder City rely on tourism," said Cheryl Ferrence, who has lived in the community for 24 years. "We need to continue to improve Boulder City and make the 'old town' area a place where travelers want to stop."

Even that may prove to be a challenge.

Sullard said that, in an agreement with the Eldorado Power Plant, the city has been promised 15,000 trees -- more trees than Boulder City has residents.

The city envisions lining the Nevada Highway through town with the trees, but with its annual budget of $24 million, the cost of maintaining the vegetation is a concern.

Sullard said the local government must be efficient with its existing funds and will begin looking for ways to boost the town's economy.

But the odds against Boulder City joining the ranks of Laughlin as a gaming resort -- which would be one way to bolster its economy -- are greater than the odds against winning Megabucks.

When Boulder City was developed in the early 1930s for government workers building the Hoover Dam, gaming and liquor were prohibited. The town was gated and visitors who wanted to stay for more than a day had to obtain a permission slip signed by the city manager.

The gate was eventually taken down, the city became incorporated in 1960 and liquor became legal in 1969. But Boulder City's charter with Nevada says gaming is prohibited until the majority of voters say otherwise.

City Council members know how residents feel about gaming, which is why they emphasized that MGM's golf-course proposal does not include any gambling or hotel rooms. They also know residents are watching closely.

"There's been an outreach from this government, and the relationship is a whole lot better," Wiles said. "But it will take a while for the new council members and the mayor to build that trust back up.

"We need to make sure they're not giving our city away, which may be part of the reason why people are watching BCTV in bars."

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