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October 19, 2014

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Water debate stalls Spring Valley golf course

When county officials last year overrode the objections of Spring Valley residents and community activists and granted developer Billy Walters' request to use county acreage for commercial buildings, Walters pledged to build what the homeowners in nearby Rhodes Ranch wanted on the adjacent county land -- a golf course.

But Walters' representatives now say they don't think they can build the golf course because water is not available.

Officials with the regional water district, however, say the water is available, and county officials said that Walters' lease, ratified earlier this month, might be invalid if the golf course does not proceed as planned.

Walters, who has served as a lightning rod for critics across the Las Vegas Valley for this and other projects, won approval a year ago from the county to convert 40 acres he leased from the county's Aviation Department from part of the planned golf course to commercial purposes.

As part of the compromise, Walters pledged to skeptics that he would move forward with plans to turn the remaining 200 acres into a golf course, a path of action emphatically supported by residents of a Rhodes Ranch subdivision across the street.

The commission on March 2 approved the contract with Walters that allowed the project on Warm Springs Road and Cimarron Drive to go forward. The contract tied Walters' development of the commercial property to development of the golf course, but allowed an escape clause if no water was available.

Aviation Director Randy Walker said his department did its job, fulfilling the direction of the county commission delivered during the earlier debate.

"We said we would put some provisions in the lease commitment, try to tie the two (the commercial and golf course developments) together," he said. "The golf course lease itself requires Mr. Walters to begin construction within 24 months of getting a water commitment.

"This lease is much more aggressive in terms of his performance than we have developed with any of our other real estate partners."

If Walters fails to develop the golf course, he would lose a $500,000 deposit, the 200 acres slated for the golf course and his lease to any land that is not yet built upon for the planned commercial development, Walker said.

In the contract approved March 2, the amount of land for commercial uses expanded from 40 acres to 60 acres with the addition of several Aviation Department parcels a half-mile east of the land at Warm Springs and Cimarron.

Walker said that outside of the provisions concerning the golf course, the contract for commercial development mirrors other contracts between the Aviation Department and developers: The county would receive half of the net revenue generated by rents paid for the offices and retails shops planned for the site.

The debate over the availability of the water is critical to the contract. Walker said if the water is available, the Aviation Department will enforce the contract.

"If that's true, then the (24-month) trigger will start immediately," he said.

The availability of the water is in dispute, however.

Mike Luce, president of the Walters Group and one of the developer's key representatives, said construction is beginning on the commercial side of the project but that "today, there is no water available."

"If there is water available, we're going to build the golf course," he said.

Technically, the water -- "gray" water or treated sewage from the Desert Breeze treatment plant in the park of the same name -- is not available, but only because Walters' companies have not applied to use the resource, Las Vegas Valley Water District officials said.

"The first step in any of these cases is to get the application," J.C. Davis, water district spokesman, said. "That hasn't happened."

But the gray water flows from the Rhodes Ranch development directly across the street from the site of the would-be golf course, Davis said.

"It's going to be hard to definitively say we can provide whatever water they need until we get an application," he said. "However, we are very comfortable saying that we could meet the needs of a golf course based on the availability of recycled and potable water next to that property."

Terry Murphy, a land-use consultant who worked for Walters during the earlier debate, said the information the Walters team received from the Clark County Water Reclamation District was that not enough water was available.

While the reclamation district runs the Desert Breeze sewage treatment plant, it is the water district that determines who gets the water, said Marty Flynn, a reclamation district spokesman.

Flynn said "everything from customers to pipelines" is the water district's responsibility.

"It's confusion, that's all it is," Murphy said.

Luce said he was "absolutely under the impression, the airport people were under the impression, that the water wasn't there," he said. "If all of these things are the case, and we don't know all of these are the case, if it is available, we will build a golf course.

"We make agreements and we do what we say we will do in our agreements."

Lisa Mayo-De Riso, a Spring Valley community activist who vigorously opposed Walters' commercial construction plans a year ago, believes the problem is more than just confusion. She argues that the county and Walters have designed a contract that will give the developer offices and a shopping center, but will not give the community a public facility with open space.

"That public space is like gold in this community. We don't have enough of it," Mayo-De Riso said.

She said the residents compromised on the deal for commercial space on the site as long as a golf course was built.

"Now a deal has been struck where there is no golf course. That doesn't seem fair," she said.

Mayo-De Riso and her allies have started a campaign to bring the contract back before the county commission for public debate.

Commissioner Bruce Woodbury, who represents the area, said bringing a signed contract back for reconsideration might be tough.

He said the issue of the availability of the water is "something we need to check out."

But Woodbury has doubts that a golf course is the best use for open land in a time of drought and concerns about the sustainability of the regional water supply.

"Any drop of water right now is critical," he said.

When gray water is pumped into Lake Mead, those gallons rack up "return flow credit" for the water system. The more credits, the more gallons can be taken out of the lake for valley residents' use.

Gray water used on a golf course does not provide the valley with any return flow credit.

If water wasn't an issue, and the availability of water was firmly established, the county's next move would be clear, Woodbury said.

But the terms of the contract appear to call for a golf course, so the county might have to enforce that, he said.

"I guess we need the airport and the legal people to proceed in whatever way the contract requires them to," Woodbury said.

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