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July 29, 2014

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McCarran to put off energy-saving projects to pay $38 million settlement

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Leila Navidi

Kids play at Sunset Park in Las Vegas as an airplane lands at McCarran International Airport on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013.

McCarran International Airport will pay $38 million to settle a 5-year-old legal dispute alleging that airspace restrictions imposed during the 1990s devalued 191 acres of property near Interstate 15 and Warm Springs Road.

Runway expansion in the 1990s led Clark County to implement new zoning regulations limiting building height in a restricted area to avoid interfering with the airport’s airspace.

Several vacant parcels covering about 191 acres in an area bounded by I-15, Las Vegas Boulevard, Warm Springs Road and Blue Diamond Road were hit with these restrictions.

The parcels were all owned by 70 Limited Partnership, a company controlled by the estate of Thomas Beam, founder of Las Vegas Development Co. who was a major donor to UNLV and whose name is featured prominently on the music and engineering buildings.

Beam’s estate filed suit against the county and McCarran in 2008, alleging that the height restrictions devalued the property and constituted a taking by the government that demanded compensation under state eminent domain law.

The county fought the charges all the way to the Nevada Supreme Court, which ruled that the a portion of the airspace and building height restrictions resulted in a taking for public use.

The $38 million settlement includes compensation for the taking of the aerial rights of way, plus interest and attorneys' fees.

The payment will come out of the airport’s capital improvement fund, which comes from revenues generated by landing fees. That means taxpayers won’t be on the hook for this settlement, but several projects at McCarran will have to be delayed or canceled.

Spokesman Chris Jones said the settlement means the airport will end its program of purchasing select homes in high-noise areas near the airport’s runways, delay the implementation of an airport energy savings plan that included a solar panel park, and stop a project modernizing the airfield and garage lighting with energy-efficient LED fixtures.

County commissioners will be asked to approve the settlement as part of their consent agenda at their Tuesday meeting.

“It doesn’t feel good,” Commissioner Steve Sisolak said about the settlement, “but this isn’t taxpayer money. It’s airport landing fee money. Our legal staff have told us this brings it to an end.”

Sisolak is uniquely familiar with the situation the county finds itself in — in the early part of the 2000s, he sued over similar airspace and height restrictions that affected a piece of property he owned near the airport. Sisolak’s legal battle dragged over several years and ended with him receiving $23.5 million in compensation, interest and attorneys' fees.

“When you take away some of that height, there’s a damage to the underlying value of that piece of property,” said Sisolak, who has since sold the property. “The argument is they can’t develop because they can’t build as high as other land you find. It makes it less marketable.”

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