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After a year of discussions, Clark County outlines its proposal for a public lands bill

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg
EnvironmentLocal Government
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Clark County Government Center

By the end of June, Clark County government staff hope to have a resolution before the commission asking Congress to open 38,600 acres of public land to development, including along the I-15.

The plan, meant to ease land constraints as the population grows, is the latest tension in the ongoing balancing act between growth and the consequence of growth — sprawl.

Since last June, the county has met privately with local governments, environmentalists, federal agencies, developers, congressional offices, municipal utilities and tribal partners to discuss the proposal, which was set to go before the commission in August but was pulled from the agenda.

Although the county has not hosted any public meetings on the proposed federal legislation, the resolution — first reported by The Nevada Independent — could have a public hearing as soon as next month. The county is eyeing June 19 to bring the proposal before the commissioners.

Under the proposed resolution, Clark County would also seek to protect nearly 400,000 acres of land as wilderness or critical habitat for desert tortoise. The proposed plan, as a result, has had buy-in from some groups within the Southern Nevada conservation community. The county said its goal with the proposal was to maintain an equilibrium between expansion and conservation.

“The county’s goal is to represent a balanced approach,” said Marci Henson, Clark County’s director of air quality and the point-person in the negotiations. “It’s important to the county that we see both an increase in [land] to accommodate population growth and future economic development, but [also] that we are setting aside additional conservation areas to minimize and mitigate impacts.”

The proposal would instruct Congress to expand the amount of public land that federal land managers are allowed to sell off to private developers. The Bureau of Land Management, which controls about 67 percent of Nevada’s land, regularly sells “disposal land” to developers under the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act. That legislation, passed in 1998, created a boundary for where BLM land could be sold off. The proposal would push that boundary out toward the Spring Mountain range and along the I-15, expanding it by about 38,636 acres.

The county, Henson said, is still in talks with the other municipalities, such as the cities of Henderson and Las Vegas, about how the land would be used. Each municipality can control how the land would be zoned and incorporated into its regional planning. But in an interview on Thursday, outlined how the county foresees some of the land along the I-15 corridor being developed.

The lines outlined in light green and circled show land that could one day be annexed if the plan moves forward.

Henson said the areas immediately adjacent to the I-15 would likely be zoned for commercial development for buildings like distribution centers.

“The county’s interest is maintaining this area with a non-residential land use status,” Henson said. “We are in need of a land base in a transportation corridor that can accommodate some larger industrial and commercial uses. And that’s a prime area to do that.”

Another reason the county might avoid residential housing is to comply with federal aviation regulations should the county move forward on a proposed Ivanpah Valley Airport near Primm.

Areas farther away from the I-15 could be zoned residential, Henson said.

The conservation measures and expansion of “disposal land,” although the centerpiece of the proposed resolution, are only one aspect. The resolution would ask Congress to convey about 89,140 acres of federal land to the Moapa Band of Paiutes. It would ask the U.S. Forest Service to give the county control of “Camp Lee Canyon,” convey some land to the Moapa Valley Water District, make “minor adjustments” to the Red Rock National Conservation Area and request that the Department of Interior finish six erosion control barriers on the Las Vegas Wash.

Clark County Lands Bill (4/23) by Daniel Rothberg on Scribd

The resolution has sparked some concern within the conservation community because it would amend the Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan for the desert tortoise. The issue is not so much the content of that amendment as it is the process. Any amendment done by Congress would not require a typical scientific environmental analysis that would include public comment.

Other groups remain concerned that the expansion of disposal land could exacerbate urban sprawl, create social inequities and place a strain on resources like water and air quality.

“That’s something the county is concerned about and [the county] wants to make sure we are minimizing those unintended negative consequences, whether it’s sprawl, impacting air quality or water resources. Infill continues to be a priority for all of the local municipalities,” Henson said.

But county officials have argued that the land expansion is necessary because the population is growing, and demand for land is growing with it. The argument made by county officials and development groups is that more land will keep prices low enough for commercial developers who are looking in other sprawling cities, from Phoenix to Denver, that have large, flat swaths of vacant land.

The Clark County bill comes as the U.S. Air Force pushes to expand the boundaries of the Nevada Test and Training Range by about 300,000 acres. The military is proposing to achieve that goal by picking up protected land managed through the Desert Wildlife Refuge, a move that conservationists strongly oppose. There had been some talk about reconciling the Air Force proposal with the more expansive Clark County lands bill since both deal with similar issues.

Henson said the county had some discussions with the Department of Defense, but ultimately the issues between the military and the environmentalists couldn’t be worked out by the county.

“While we were involved in discussions, we’ve informed everyone that we’ve stepped back from those,” Henson said. “At the time, there was hope that maybe we could all work this out.”

Updated at 12:32 p.m. on May 7th: The caption for the map was updated to indicate that the proposed disposal boundaries are outlined in light green, not red.

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