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July 31, 2014

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County, Rhodes reach agreement on development near Red Rock Canyon

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Steve Marcus

Developer Jim Rhodes smiles on Blue Diamond Hill on Monday, May 5, 2003. Las Vegas can be seen in the background.

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Jim and Glynda Rhodes

Beyond the Sun

Plans for a massive development near Red Rock Canyon — which vanished from public view after becoming mired in a lawsuit — are back.

But the five years that have passed since they were first introduced haven’t erased nearby residents’ disdain for Jim Rhodes’ plans to build homes on a couple of thousand acres of Blue Diamond Hill, the site of a gypsum mine near the Red Rock National Conservation Area.

In 2003, county commissioners quashed Rhodes’ plans to build up to 5,500 homes on 2,400 acres by passing an ordinance preventing development that would increase housing density within a 70-square-mile area dubbed the Red Rock Overlay District. The ordinance effectively kept anyone from building more than two homes per acre on the land.

In 2005, Rhodes’ company, Gypsum Resources LLC, sued the county over the ordinance.

In 2009, the Nevada law that enabled Clark County to restrict the development in the first place was struck down in court.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Rob Warhola said county lawyers saw the writing on the wall. Though the state is appealing that ruling, it “gave us a pretty good indication of the court’s viewpoint,” Warhola said.

The ruling loomed larger with Rhodes’ lawsuit scheduled for a May 3 trial.

The two parties talked during a court-ordered settlement conference and, as a result, an exception to the ordinance will be introduced today to the County Commission. No vote is scheduled until a public hearing is held April 21.

If the commission does, however, approve the exception, Warhola said, Rhodes could apply to build a more dense development — but only if it’s designated a “major project” and on 1,700 acres, not the entire 2,400.

The “major project” designation is key, Warhola said, because it allows more county oversight of development plans. “As a major project, (Rhodes) needs a development agreement so the county can control impacts on conservation, on Blue Diamond and the whole area.”

If the county chooses not to settle with Rhodes, then loses in court, Warhola said, it could lose that greater level of oversight.

So it was a compromise: Rhodes can only develop on 1,700 of the 2,400 acres, but the county gains greater control over any development.

Neither Rhodes nor the attorney representing him on the project could be reached for comment.

The prospect of homes going up on the land anytime soon is improbable. There’s a glut of homes in the valley, the economy is abysmal and investment money is scarce. A year ago, Rhodes filed for bankruptcy protection with $400 million in liabilities.

But for those with an eye on dominating future development in the Las Vegas Valley, setting aside land now could be key.

And activists opposed to development say there are no guarantees the county’s agreement will hold up once the economy bounces back.

Lisa Mayo Deriso, a local businesswoman and activist, said she has a hard time believing the county is sincere because neither she nor anyone else in the group Save Red Rock knew of the attempts to settle with Rhodes. The group formed in 2003 to oppose development so close to the popular outdoor recreation area.

“Why didn’t someone come to us months ago and say ... this is what’s going on?” she said.

As for the development restrictions, Deriso said she wants to see them in writing. “Until you have this entire deal in a public document, they’re going to have people standing at the podium questioning them.”

Scott Rutledge, executive director of the Nevada Conservation League, said a lot of “public trust was gained” when residents persuaded the County Commission to approve the no-development ordinance in 2003. “So it’s incumbent upon our commission to vet this through a very open and public process.”

He also wondered if Commissioner Susan Brager, who represents the area and works as a real estate agent, should be allowed to vote on the matter in upcoming meetings.

County attorney Mary Ann Miller said no state law or county ordinance prevents Brager from voting.

Brager said she is going to hold a community meeting on the issue this month. She stressed she wants to hear “everyone’s opinion” and has not made up her mind “one way or the other.”

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