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County to pay $31 million to settle lawsuits in airspace restriction cases

Two families that contend their properties lost value because of height limits imposed near McCarran International Airport won settlements totaling $31 million from Clark County.

Clark County commissioners on Monday agreed to pay $21 million to the Mohler family and $10 million to the Mona family as compensation for curbing building heights in low-fly zones.

The litigants argued that the height rules limit the size of resorts that can be built on the parcels south of the Strip.

Attorneys on both sides of the eminent domain cases described the settlement as reasonable.

“Everybody agreed in the long run this was best for everybody,” said Kermitt Waters, an attorney for the Mohlers.

Kirk Lenhard, an attorney representing McCarran, agreed that settling the Mohler dispute was the most prudent choice. If the case went to court, the county might have paid the Mohlers much more to cover attorney’s fees and interest on the land, Lenhard said.

“This was a fair compromise,” Lenhard said. “There was a lot of give and take.”

Waters had predicted that the Mohlers could win as much as $100 million in court. But the family was ready to settle and move on, he said.

The 15-acre Mohler property and 18-acre Mona parcel are across from each another on the east and west sides of Las Vegas Boulevard South, just south of the Las Vegas Beltway.

In the Mona case, the owners filed for bankruptcy and auctioned off the property. They argued that the height restrictions lowered the auction price.

“It’s a fair settlement when nobody’s thrilled but everybody is relieved it’s over,” said Laura Fitzsimmons, an attorney handling the Mona case.

Attorney Keith Rooker, who represented the county in this case, couldn’t be reached for comment.

The costs of airspace dispute settlements are passed to airlines as fees for using the airport, and the carriers then decide whether to raise ticket prices or cut flights, airport officials say.

Last year, Urban Land Nevada, a family-owned company, was awarded $110 million for 140 acres condemned near a runway. Two hotel-development companies also won a combined $50 million for height limits north of the airport.

Steve Sisolak, who was sworn in Monday as a commissioner, received a total of $23.5 million in 2005 after the airport refused to pay him for height restrictions imposed on a parcel he owned.

During the Monday commission meeting, Sisolak noted that although he had gone through airspace litigation, he was never involved with the Mohler or Mona cases, so he should be allowed to vote on the settlements.

Lenhard said Sisolak’s dispute set the clearest precedent. The Nevada Supreme Court ruled that landowners can seek compensation if planes flying below 500 feet hinder their ability to develop high-rise buildings, he said.

“The Sisolak case defined what a taking is, and what we’re expected to do” to compensate owners, Lenhard said.

A pivotal case involving STT Land will come before the state Supreme Court by summer, he said. That will test whether the high court believes a 15-year statute of limitations applies in most of the remaining airspace cases.

If the court rules that landowners have no time limit to sue, the county could face more than $2 billion in lawsuits, Lenhard said.

However, Fitzsimmons believes the county is greatly inflating its estimates. At most, the county would pay out $100 million in the cases that are left, especially now that people seem in the mood to settle, she said.

Lenhard said the airport’s liability could be kept under $100 million if the high court upholds the statute of limitations and, in turn, quashes most lawsuits. Otherwise, the damages could mount, he said.

“There are a few big ones down the pike,” Lenhard said, adding that he just received a demand for a “ridiculous sum of money.”

 

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

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