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County commission sides with Rhodes in housing development near Red Rock

A developer can apply for higher-density housing than zoning allows on hilltop land near the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

Clark County commissioners voted 4-3 Wednesday to approve an agreement with Jim Rhodes that lets him apply for "major projects" at least 700 acres in size. The county retains the right to reject any proposals.

The board’s decision drew loud jeers from opponents.

"Shame on you!" one woman shouted.

Dozens of critics attended the meeting, and some testified against the agreement.

Rhodes sat quietly in the audience, flanked by attorneys and associates.

Attorney Chris Kaempfer, who represented Rhodes, said everyone in the room wanted the same thing but was going about it differently.

"We all want to protect the majesty and mystery of Red Rock," Kaempfer said, referring to the popular hiking, climbing, biking and picnicking area.

But Howard Booth, 83, who has been involved in efforts to preserve Red Rock since the 1950s, disagreed.

"I don’t think Mr. Rhodes bought the land to protect Red Rock," Booth said. "He bought it to make money."

Rhodes now can request higher density than the one house per two acres allowed on the former mining site east of Red Rock. In return, he won’t develop his land nearest the conservation area or near the small community of Blue Diamond.

His representatives say he will give the public plenty of chances to comment before drafting a plan for a subdivision that would include million-dollar homes with sweeping views of Red Rock and the valley from atop the mesa. They also say businesses and a school might be in the mix.

It’s unknown how many homes would be built or when he might break ground. A previous plan in 2003 called for 5,500 houses.

Rhodes also will drop a lawsuit challenging the county code that barred him from applying for higher density on his 2,400 acres.

Last year, a federal judge struck down a state law mirroring the county’s restrictions. The same federal judge was scheduled to hear Rhodes’ case against the county in May, making county attorneys fearful of a similar outcome.

If the county lost in court, Rhodes could build on the land next to Red Rock or sell off chunks piecemeal to other developers, Deputy District Attorney Rob Warhola said.

Commissioner Susan Brager, whose district includes the area around Red Rock, choked back tears as she talked of doing what she felt she must to preserve what she deems a national treasure and protect Blue Diamond.

She then voiced her support for settling with Rhodes.

Heckling and derisive groans ensued.

"I’m sorry you disagree," said Brager, who is seeking re-election. "I believe I’m voted in to do it to the best of my ability."

Commissioners Tom Collins, Larry Brown and Steve Sisolak joined her in voting for the agreement. Commissioners Chris Giunchigliani, Rory Reid and Lawrence Weekly voted "no."

Brown argued that the county is better off vetting what Rhodes can develop, rather than leaving it up to the courts.

"Let’s take responsibility for making a decision," Brown said. "Let’s not hide behind a lawsuit."

Giunchigliani said they would face the same federal judge with whom they tussled on a contentious Las Vegas Beltway paving case that’s now under appeal.

Still, she said she opposed the agreement because there were too many unanswered questions.

For instance, Rhodes said the main road planned for the project would run east of his site and not connect to state Route 159, which loops through the canyon. But Giunchigliani said he hasn’t said how he would build it. She questioned why the county is granting access for a road not yet built.

The county should battle him in court, she said. "If you don’t fight now, when do you pick and choose?"

Reid agreed with that course of action.

"There are times when compromise is appropriate, and there are times when you need to make a stand," said Reid, a Democratic candidate for governor. "I do not want part of my legacy to be that I compromised on Red Rock."

The county created the strict zoning in 2003, shortly after the state enacted similar restrictions in an area encompassing Rhodes’ land. Rhodes sued the county and state, saying they unlawfully singled him out.

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who testified by speaker phone Wednesday, implored commissioners not to approve the pact with Rhodes.

Titus talked of how she had spearheaded the statute that the federal judge struck down. She noted that the state has appealed the judge’s ruling.

She asked that a provision be put into the agreement that keeps Rhodes from developing the land until the appeal is decided.

The state and county codes were challenged on different grounds, said Kevin Powers, an attorney with the state Legislative Counsel Bureau.

The federal judge challenged the state law, saying the state had no authority to protect Red Rock because it’s not a "common natural resource," Powers said. His reasoning was that Red Rock, unlike Lake Tahoe, is in just one county, making it a local natural resource outside the state’s purview.

This judge questioned the county code because he thinks it targeted Rhodes’ land too specifically, violating equal protection rights, Powers said.

The judge referred to a 2003 letter in which Titus stated that the strict zoning would devalue Rhodes’ land and make him more likely to sell it to the government. He found the letter was enough to warrant a hearing but not invalidate the code, Powers said.

The county would have had a good chance of winning the case, Powers said. "We do not believe the judge properly applied this law."

During the meeting, Powers asked that the agreement be amended. The changes would have prevented Rhodes from developing the land until the state’s appeal played out and would have imposed other restrictions.

Warhola protested. He said the state knew of the county’s negotiations with Rhodes for months and should not jump in with "11th-hour amendments."

Tracey Donley, a real estate agent, was angry that commissioners didn’t take Powers’ advice. She said Rhodes has a record of starting large projects and then bailing out.

The county must keep close watch on a developer who is on the verge of insolvency, she said, referring to Rhodes filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection against a reported $400 million in liabilities.

"Are we going to put ourselves in a position where we are going to be entrusted with someone who has repeatedly in the real estate realm let the public down?" Donley said.

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

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