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July 23, 2014

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Look out Jean, here comes Henderson

The Bureau of Land Management has blessed Henderson's plans to annex coveted federal land bordering both sides of Las Vegas Boulevard South near St. Rose Parkway, paving the way to a potential financial windfall for it and positioning it as the southern gateway city into the Las Vegas Valley.

The land, totaling 3,500 acres and owned by the BLM, is situated between St. Rose Parkway on the north and a proposed heliport in unincorporated Clark County on the south, near Sloan. The decision puts Henderson in a better position to expand its boundaries south to Jean - a move Clark County officials vehemently oppose.

The BLM's decision does not require other government approvals, and county officials indicated they would not appeal the decision within the hierarchy of the BLM.

The annexation is expected to be completed in November, but the city has no timetable for asking the federal government to auction the land for sale to private developers.

The property is likely to be zoned for master-planned communities with resort development along Las Vegas Boulevard South. Because it will be extending public works to the area, Henderson expects to have an advantage in encouraging private-property owners to annex into the city.

An 800-foot-wide corridor will remain under Clark County control so it can extend utilities south to the planned Ivanpah Valley airport between Jean and Primm. That corridor, planned to run parallel to Interstate 15, overlaps the current two-lane Las Vegas Boulevard South where it borders the freeway - a configuration that would stifle development along the street. But Henderson could realign Las Vegas Boulevard South to the east when possible, paving the way for some additional resort development along I-15 before Las Vegas-bound motorists even set eyes on the existing Strip.

The BLM's decision elated Henderson officials not just because of the prospect of reaping the benefits of new casinos within the city's extended boundaries, but because it gives Henderson the ability to design a highly visible entrance to the city and lays the groundwork for still more expansion.

"I don't see it from the value of the name on the road but more or less a way to continue to assure Henderson's future," Councilwoman Amanda Cyphers said. "We are more excited about making sure that if Henderson needs to grow in the future, that opportunity will be afforded to us."

The ruling stung Clark County officials who thought, given their experience in Strip development, they should wield control of Las Vegas Boulevard to the south.

County officials also fear Henderson will continue to reach farther south toward the Ivanpah airport.

"We will have to deal with the consequences," County Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates said.

Atkinson Gates said she will meet with county staff next week to mull its options. The county could appeal the decision higher up in the BLM, but Commission Chairman Rory Reid said he doesn't expect that to happen. He said the BLM's decision was important in securing the utility corridor needed for the airport.

Clark County had requested the utility corridor to stretch to a width of 2,640 feet near St. Rose Parkway. That would have prevented Henderson from controlling both sides of the Strip, except for the southeast corner of Las Vegas Boulevard South and St. Rose Parkway that already is in the city.

Juan Palma, the BLM Las Vegas field manager who made the ruling, said it wasn't necessary to give Clark County the half-mile swath for bringing water, sewer, rail right of way and bus lanes to Ivanpah. The county requested only an 800-foot wide corridor south of Sloan Road, and Palma said that size should be sufficient near St. Rose Parkway as well.

"I know a couple of commissioners weren't pleased with what Henderson was trying to do," Palma said. "I didn't want to get into that political stuff. I based my decision on what was within the domain of the BLM. It was clear to me I was directed by Congress to have a (utilities) corridor down to Ivanpah. That's what's critical, and we have done that."

Federal legislation in 2002 that led to the sale of 5,800 acres to the county for the airport allowed a utility corridor up to one-half mile.

It called on Henderson and the county to work together on establishing the boundaries and size in consultation with the BLM.

Palma said the annexation question didn't boil down to choosing Henderson over Clark County because by default under state law, cities can annex unincorporated federally owned land coming up for auction. This scenario was different only in that there was a need to preserve a utility corridor for the county airport, he said.

Despite Henderson's win, a bigger battle is yet to come.

Commissioners oppose Henderson's plans to expand its borders to the south beyond the BLM's 3,500 acres. They fear any move by Henderson farther south could jeopardize the growth of the airport and create air-quality problems that stifle development.

Some commissioners, meanwhile, don't want Henderson to profit from the county's investment in a new airport.

"That land down there is the entrance to Clark County," Atkinson Gates said. "Henderson is simply interested in growth. But anything down there could restrict Ivanpah if we have homes built down there."

Henderson officials say they won't jeopardize airport development - but neither, they say, do they want the city's growth impeded. Henderson is on a hunt for property that can be developed for jobs and housing, but is hampered because the city is largely surrounded by federally controlled land.

At the urging of the BLM, Henderson withdrew a separate annexation request for tens of thousands of acres of federal land near Jean, but Palma said nothing prevents Henderson from resurrecting the issue. The land is outside the federal disposal boundary, and Congress has yet to make it available for auction.

"We will have to have the same conversation all over again," once the land is included in the disposal area, Palma said.

Brian Gordon, a principal with the Las Vegas research firm Applied Analysis, said the size, scope and number of casinos and other development along Las Vegas Boulevard South will be determined by the market rather than the governmental entity controlling the land.

"We'd expect it to take some time before a significant number of hotel-casinos are developed in that area," Gordon said. "It's really a market-driven decision."

A South Strip is shaping up after the December opening of the South Coast and plans for other hotels farther to the south such as Olympia Gaming's proposed Southern Highlands.

Casino developer Anthony Marnell III welcomes the news of annexation and said it may kick-start an as-yet-unclear plan for growth in the region.

Marnell is building the $1.8 billion M Resort at the southeast corner of St. Rose Parkway and Las Vegas Boulevard, within Henderson city limits. He said Henderson has been "great to work with" but said he wasn't sure if Henderson controlling the land to the south would make a difference in accelerating the region's growth.

"I'm excited to see it go somewhere," he said. "We have a big vested interest in that corridor, and we monitor it greatly. There are all kinds of rumors and ideas and plans. To define a clear direction for that corridor and what the heck is going to happen there, is a good thing."

The dispute over the future of southern Clark County started in March 2005 when the county opposed Henderson's bid to annex 3,626 acres because no utility corridor for Ivanpah had been set aside.

The tensions worsened later when county officials accused Henderson of going behind their backs when it unsuccessfully pushed for state legislation that would have made it easier for the city to annex the land.

Earlier this year, county commissioners and Henderson City Councilmen traded barbs through the media about the other being land hogs and who would do a better job managing the next resort corridor.

By law, Henderson can't move to complete the annexation until after the general election in November, Henderson City Manager Phil Speight said.

Sun reporter Liz Benston contributed to this story.

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