Nevada city can preserve land, or cash out big time

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BOULDER CITY, Nev. (AP) – No showgirls here. No neon. No blackjack or slots. People in this desert enclave, 25 miles southeast of Las Vegas, have never been interested in cashing in on its proximity to Sin City.

Until now.

Some local activists think Boulder City, where gambling has been banned for all its 75 years, is sitting on a jackpot: 167 square miles of undeveloped open land in one of the nation’s hottest real estate markets.

Their proposal could make millionaires of every man, woman and child in this town of about 15,000 – that is, as long as city officials are wrong when they say the plan would never stand court scrutiny.

(Don’t pack your bags, incidentally. Only people living in Boulder City as of March 31 would be eligible, making for a heck of an April fool’s joke for anyone who arrived a day late.)

Eldorado Valley, an expanse of dry lake bed dotted by creosote bushes and flanked by red-rock mountains, is worth $15 billion to $50 billion, the activists estimate. That, they say, is too much dough and too much responsibility for its City Council to handle.

So, if the land can’t be preserved – which they insist is their first choice – why not let locals share in the profits, they say.

“We’re trying to give people a choice,” said Sherman Rattner, a silver-ponytailed, Brooklyn-born gadfly who is leading the group. “If you don’t stand up now, it’s going to be sold out. And if that’s the case let’s get the money to the people and let’s create something wonderful.”

Rattner’s Coalition to Protect the Future of Boulder City is circulating two vastly different petitions in its attempt to control the future of the valley, which at 107,000 acres is almost as big as San Jose, Calif.

One proposal would require the land to remain untouched, set aside for the preservation of the endangered desert tortoise, public recreation and possible solar power development.

The other would force the City Council to sell the property to the highest bidder. Ten percent of the money would pay off the city debt, build a bypass highway around town and fund education. Ninety percent would be distributed to city residents.

In a region surrounding Las Vegas, where an average vacant acre sold for $152,000 in the third quarter of 2001 and $700,000 in the same period in 2005, the sale could yield a check for up to $3.2 million for every Boulder City “resident of record.”

It took only a week for Rattner’s group to gather half the 700 signatures necessary to put the petitions on the November city ballot.

Rattner tries to persuade voters to sign both petitions, and resents the notion that his group is after a quick buck. He says they’re more like jaded government birddoggers, refugees from California, who’ve seen the way growth seems to spread unchecked, despite officials’ assurances.

“We think of this like cutting out the middleman, the City Council,” he said. He compares the arrangement to Alaska, where citizens get a share of the state’s royalties from the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Local officials argue that Rattner’s plan will never survive a legal challenge.

The residency cut-off date is arbitrary and unfair to longtime residents who may have moved recently, City Attorney Dave Olsen said. He added that citizen petitions and charter amendments cannot interfere with administrative duties – such as selling land – that are assigned to city government by the city charter.

More fundamentally, Olsen said, the land doesn’t belong to the residents of Boulder City in the first place.

“The deed that’s on file in the county recorder’s office says the city of Boulder City, not the people of Boulder City. Boulder City is a corporate entity that exists at the pleasure of the Nevada State Legislature,” he said.

City officials also insist that the proposed sale would wipe out the charm of Boulder City – a holdover from when the federal government built the town to house workers at nearby Hoover Dam.

The “Main Street” feel has been preserved in part thanks to tight limits on the number of the new homes built each year.

“I’ll do everything in my power to see that it doesn’t pass,” said Mike Pacini, a City Council member and grocery store clerk who has lived here since 1969. He draws a contrast between himself and Rattner, who has lived in a hotel overlooking Lake Mead since he arrived from California three years ago.

Rattner shrugs off the “outsider” label, saying he’s as entitled to petition his government as anyone else.

He considers the initiative a populist response to what he sees as corruption and mismanagement in government. But Pacini said selling off Eldorado Valley to show distrust “is selling off your nose to spite your face.”

That’s an opinion repeated by some other skeptical Boulder City residents.

“It seems like kind of a pipe dream,” said Sherrill Graff, Miss Boulder City 1980, as she sat outside the Boulder City Credit Union, collecting donations for this year’s pageant. “I trust the City Council to make the right decisions.”

“It’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard,” said Sherri Budd, part-owner of the Edie and Sher-Lo Flower Shop. “If we sell it, we’ll lose control.”

County and state officials recently reminded residents that Boulder City doesn’t have much control to begin with.

Some 85,000 acres of the Eldorado Valley parcel is part of a desert conservation easement protecting the tortoise. Development is prohibited unless officials rework the agreement.

That’s fine with Rattner, who says he and other supporters of the plan would just focus on the remaining 22,000 acres if the rest were off-limits.

“That still could be more than $400,000, $300,000 for people,” he said. “That’s something.”

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