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EDITORIAL: Government must sell more land

When the valley’s economy was hotter than asphalt in July, nothing captured the exuberance and insanity of the growth quite like a Bureau of Land Management auction. Thousands of vacant acres were sold to developers and individuals, often above appraised value. Homes, offices and strip malls couldn’t be built fast enough.

Then the whole thing went to hell. Not coincidentally, demand for federal land disappeared.

Now, after more than a year of recovery in the housing market, builders finally need more land to keep up with demand. So, as reported Wednesday by the Review-Journal’s Jennifer Robison, the BLM has scheduled an auction for Jan. 16. The agency will take bids on 28 parcels totaling 440 acres, including a 248-acre plot in the northeast valley. Excluding an aborted 480-acre sale for a Henderson sports complex in 2012, this will be the biggest BLM land offering since 2007.

That auction seems like a lifetime ago. In case you’ve forgotten, the auctions are allowed under the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act of 1998. Here’s how they work: First, developers ask a municipality to nominate a parcel for sale. The BLM decides which nominated parcels will go on the auction block and has them appraised. Sale proceeds do not go to the federal treasury, instead supporting state schools, parks, the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the purchase of private land various interests want preserved.

January’s scheduled auction is a reminder that the Las Vegas Valley will continue to grow, despite a slowly recovering economy, and that new residents will need a place to live. The new home industry sold more than 5,000 homes through August this year, burning through privately held parcels. New homes have been especially popular with traditional buyers, who needed financing and couldn’t compete with cash-paying investors in the resale market.

It’s a good sign that builders want to continue investing in the valley, and that they’re confident they’ll get a return on that investment. But when the time comes for governments to decide how to spend the proceeds of January’s auction, they should focus on parks, trails and recreation, not land acquisition. The federal government owns about 85 percent of Nevada land. It needs to dispose of much more acreage, not buy land back after it finally hands some over.

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