Rhodes submits revised plan for developing Blue Diamond Hill

Picture 7,000 homes in multiple villages complete with a town square, schools, a college campus, light-industrial shops, stores, restaurants, offices, spas and parks atop a mesa.

That's what Jim Rhodes envisions in a conceptual plan he submitted to Clark County for developing 2,500 acres of hilltop land overlooking the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

It's the latest plan for Rhodes, who has incited public outrage more than once in his quest to redevelop the former gypsum mine near a scenic area popular for hiking, camping, picnicking and rock climbing.

This proposal's maximum density would have 1,500 more homes than a plan he floated in 2003 that called for 5,500 homes and caused an uproar.

A conceptual plan is a somewhat loose illustration mixed in with a wish list of what a developer would like to build on his land.

Still, the 78-page document contains descriptions, charts and maps outlining Rhodes' most ambitious vision yet for the site known as Blue Diamond Hill.

One thing absent in the plan is the estimated cost.

"We have begun to do cost analysis," said Ron Krater, a planner for Rhodes' company, Gypsum Resources LLC. "I don't have any of those figures with me."

He said 7,000 homes is the "maximum threshold," though he thinks that at least 5,000 are needed to make the project viable.

The goal is to break ground in 2013 and do the work in several phases, said Krater, adding that it could take as long as 30 years to complete.

The company's market analysts predict the housing market will rebound in 2015, about the time the project would really get going, Krater said.

"We've got to plan for the future because we're assuming we're going to have a future," Krater said.

The proposal is already drawing criticism from many of the 250 residents of nearby Blue Diamond. They contend that dense development would mar Red Rock's majestic beauty and diminish their rural way of life.

Building a small village -- or even several -- on the hilltop would be OK, said Heather Fisher, a Blue Diamond resident.

"But a small city?" Fisher said. "It's just absurd to put it right in the middle of Red Rock. It's the wrong location."

When you consider the households would have multiple residents and people would work at the proposed businesses and college, the hilltop could be jammed with 15,000 people on a given day, Fisher said.

Eight years ago, county commissioners voted to limit the density on Rhodes' land to one home for every two acres. The state passed a statute mirroring the county's code.

Rhodes later filed a lawsuit challenging the restrictions.

Last year, a federal judge struck down the state law and was preparing to rule on the county's code. That prompted commissioners to vote 4-3 to let Rhodes apply for higher-density use.

One condition was that Rhodes meet with the public extensively before submitting any plans.

In the past 18 months, his representatives, including Krater, hosted open houses, workshops and roughly 400 tours of the proposed site. They also formed a "strategic council" made up of business people, government officials, planners and residents to discuss the project.

Fisher argues that the workshops were a public relations ploy.

Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who voted against rescinding the code, agreed.

"It's pretending that folks have input," Giunchigliani said.

She said Rhodes lacks the funding and has walked away from past projects, making such a huge venture risky.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who voted to loosen restrictions on Rhodes' land, said he was open to what Rhodes could offer, especially if he creates jobs by attracting businesses to the site.

And how much commercial development is feasible there?

"That's a decision made by the developer and the private sector," Sisolak said.

The plan describes creating a commercial core -- or miniature downtown -- and several commercial nodes with an array of stores, shops and other businesses. Houses would be clustered into compact villages, rather than scattered around the property.

The idea is to create a self-sustaining community in which people can shop, go to school and even work, rather than going to other places to meet their needs, Krater said.

But one development expert expressed skepticism about the project.

Getting water, power, sewer, roads and other infrastructure to this fairly remote place could cost $100 million, and that's before the first house is sold, said Jeff Rhoads, who owns Argonaut Co., a real estate consulting business.

The land also will require heavy restoration from the decades of mining, Rhoads said, making the investment more costly in a weak housing market.

"It doesn't pencil out," Rhoads said. "It would be poor public policy to approve a development like this at this time. It's an island development, well outside the urban area."

Rhoads said he suspects that the developer is trying to make the land more attractive so he can swap federal land closer to the city.

But Krater said the houses and businesses will combine to create a unique community. Rhodes won't simply be adding structures that already exist in the area, he said.

"It must be at a higher concept, or else it will languish, just as a lot of the stuff did in Las Vegas," Krater said.

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@review journal.com or 702-455-4519.