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Badlands dispute has cost Las Vegas taxpayers over $2M

Updated February 14, 2020 - 12:19 pm

In the long-running tumult over stalled residential development on the shuttered Badlands golf course in Las Vegas, the costs to city taxpayers have exceeded an unwelcome milestone: $1.5 million in legal fees.

And that burden could soon grow as the City Council has authorized another roughly $1 million in future legal spending, city records show.

“If we do not find a resolution we are going to spend millions in litigation and this could go on for years,” said Councilwoman Victoria Seaman, who campaigned in part on a pledge to settle the conflict between the developer and neighbors in the upscale Queensridge neighborhood she represents in Ward 2.

But even as the council has made recent overtures to EHB Cos., the company that has tried for years to build housing on the closed golf course weaving through the upscale Queensridge development near Summerlin, it seems unlikely that an end to rolling court expenses is in sight.

“The moral of the story is: We don’t trust the city one bit,” said EHB CEO Yohan Lowie.

Lowie said his company was prepared to fight alleged city wrongdoing “forever and ever.” But the city seeks to stop the bleeding, and a spokesman for project opponents in Queensridge remains skeptical of both.

Vow to ensure no repeat

Since 2015, proposed residential development plans in varying scope have been assailed by Queensridge neighbors for being incompatible with the area, and mostly rejected or kicked down the road by city lawmakers. It set off a campaign of litigation by EHB over the past two years, accusing city officials of restricting use of private property, unlawfully delaying applications and bias — although that allegation was dismissed in court.

For outsiders, the charges spelled out in at least a dozen ongoing lawsuits — including two filed by a local laborers’ union with a stake in construction — might appear to reflect a dispute over labyrinthine land use matters. But for Lowie, who said he can no longer develop the land because of the city’s actions and the changed real estate market, the issue is clear.

Lowie said he is committed to proving that the city government took away his rights to develop on 250 acres of the company’s property without providing compensation while performing the bidding of a few wealthy Queensridge residents who sought to extort him.

“It’s never going to happen to someone else in the state of Nevada,” he said. “That’s what we’re fighting (for) here.”

The stakes could be high: Lowie estimated that the city would be liable for over $1 billion in damages.

He also said he “took no pride” in litigation putting taxpayers on the hook, but at least two more lawsuits were forthcoming.

Nothing more than a ruse

Gaming attorney, Frank Schreck, a major opponent of EHB’s plans to construct homes and condominiums on the site of the former greens, is not convinced that Lowie will abandon development efforts on the former golf course and he called the billion-dollar damage projection “nonsense.”

“I still think it’s part of a ruse to put the pressure on the city so the city can argue, ‘we’re saving the city hundreds of millions of dollars’ and the city can give him what he wants,” Schreck said.

Schreck, a Queensridge resident, reiterated that EHB’s projects have failed because it simply never secured the rights to develop. And Lowie cannot argue that the city infringed upon rights he does not have, he said.

“But the façade is that unless we settle this, he’s going to win all this money,” Schreck said, adding that Lowie doesn’t have a case that the city “took” his property and he knows it.

One of few residents acting as the voice of that community in this feud, Schreck is also a target of Lowie’s extortion claim. As he did three years ago when he and others were accused in a legal filing of demanding land and water rights from EHB, Schreck rejected wrongdoing.

“I don’t know what motivates this guy,” he said, speaking broadly about Lowie. “I think a lot of times he believes his own bulls—t.”

Legal fees rise as city seeks talks

Questions about the validity of EHB’s residential projects will continue to play out in court, but as they do, the city remains mired in escalating legal fees.

The city has spent nearly $1.57 million as of mid-January, city records show, more than enough money to cover one-fifth of the operating budget for the city’s Courtyard Homeless Resource Center. It has hired six private law firms since April 2018 to provide either legal or consulting services in ongoing litigation.

Another $448,000 in staff hours have been spent — the majority between fiscal years 2015 and 2018 — working on Badlands redevelopment proposals, raising the total cost to the city to over $2 million, according to the data, obtained in a public records request.

Most city lawmakers last month voted to ease city rules governing the redevelopment of open spaces and shuttered golf courses, repealing and replacing an ordinance that Lowie called “bogus” and that EHB believed had singled it out.

In an overt effort to draw EHB to the negotiating table, the majority Council – Seaman included – agreed to side with EHB in the developer’s appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court over a lower court ruling in 2018 that invalidated a condo project.

Will there be a resolution?

Queensridge neighbors had successfully challenged in District Court that 435 condos on 17 acres at the closed golf course’s eastern edge near Alta Drive and Rampart Boulevard should have required a major modification to the master plan.

It was the only EHB project the Council had approved on the golf course. Schreck said he bet his law career that the state Supreme Court would affirm that it was improper.

He also criticized the city for fighting a court case against its best legal interests and for failing to protect Queensridge homeowners opposed to high-density development and who he said have seen their property values plummet.

“They didn’t say anything when we were spending millions of dollars to protect ourselves,” he said.

But neither recent council decision seems to have moved the needle.

Instead Lowie vowed “to take it all the way to the end” in the courts, saying he was only interested in talks with city officials on laws that would prevent the council from treating others how he said he had been.

“The city’s in a world of hurt and we intend to prosecute it,” he said.

City Attorney Brad Jerbic declined to speak about specifics of ongoing litigation.

“Since I’ve been with the city, it’s not often, but it has happened before, that you get involved with litigation that is protracted and just costly,” Jerbic said. “You’d be irresponsible not to try to resolve it and we’re going to continue to.”

Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter.

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