Las Vegas at Odds with Feds

LAS VEGAS--Following a decade of rapid expansion, the Las Vegas metropolitan area last year chalked up the nation's fastest rate of growth. In the 1990s, 5,000 people per month have moved to Las Vegas, and in recent years, 20,000 new homes have been built there annually. But in few other communities do planning officials have to worry so much about the effect of federal policies. Now they want Congress to change the way the federal-local equation works in the Las Vegas valley.

The root of the dilemma is that Las Vegas is ringed--like much of Nevada--by federal land. Clark County, which includes all of Las Vegas, may be benefiting from an ongoing spurt of new casino-building, but more than 90 percent of its land is publicly held, mostly by the Bureau of Land Management, but also by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service or the Defense Department. In the Las Vegas valley alone, BLM controls about 20,000 acres. Indeed, despite the presence of the mostly private Las Vegas vicinity in the middle of Clark County, the county's rate of federal ownership is actually slightly higher than that for the rest of the state, which ranks among the nation's highest.

As urban and suburban development began to gnaw away at this BLM frontier, BLM officials--usually experts in ranching, mining and wildlife--realized that they hardly well-suited to watch over heavily urbanized lands. So several years ago they set up a land-exchange program, under which developers could exchange environmentally sensitive lands elsewhere in Nevada for tracts near Las Vegas. If the exchange met environmental-impact requirements, the lands would be appraised and exchanged at a specially determined dollar-for-dollar ratio. In the 1990s, about 7,000 acres have been privatized, with the process typically taking a year or more for each parcel.

But state and local officials are frustrated by several aspects of the exchange system. For one thing, rural Nevada residents resent becoming pawns in the game, as their lands--already heavily federalized--have become even more so as a result of the Las Vegas-driven exchanges. Other Nevadans argue that disputes over appraisal methods have dragged out the process so long in some cases that investment situations in the fast-moving Las Vegas vicinity sometimes changed substantially by the time a swap was completed.

In the meantime, Clark County officials have often felt frozen out of the process. "We have a situation where land exchanges take place mainly between the proponent of the sale and BLM, and local officials can only comment," says Richard Holmes, director of Clark County's comprehensive planning office.

Local officials are also annoyed that benefits of the sales accrue to the federal government rather than being set aside to improve infrastructure and cope with the consequences of rapid growth. Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., told the House Resources Committee last March that Las Vegas officials estimate that new schools and water, sewer and transit systems needed in the next 10 years will cost between $3 billion and $8 billion. "To give you an idea of the magnitude of the situation," he said, "the Clark County School District needs the equivalent of a new elementary school every 30 days for the next five years to keep pace with the 12,000 new students entering the school system every year."

Bryan has proposed the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act, which would trade in the land-exchange system for a new bidding process. Under the plan, local officials would be given a more active role in choosing which parcels would be privatized next. Then, developers would bid for lands, rather than trading for them, so that officials could obtain the highest value possible. Most of the monies received--85 percent--would be used to acquire the same types of environmentally sensitive lands that the old system did. But the remainder would go directly to local infrastructure: 10 percent to the Southern Nevada Water Authority and 5 percent to the state education department.

Despite the possibility that they may have to pay more to acquire lands, many developers are supporting the bill because it makes the acquisition process much easier, said Karen Kirchgasser, an aide to Bryan. Jon Ralston, a Las Vegas political columnist, said the main opposition will come from a small circle of developers who have mastered the current land-swap setup. A BLM official in Washington said the agency "would like to see some further fine-tuning in the Senate bill, but we believe it does generally provide a framework for resolving development issues in Las Vegas."

A bill similar to Bryan's died in the previous Congress after it became a "Christmas tree" for extraneous amendments; the current version is currently pending in the Senate, and some observers say it appears to be caught up in a fight over the more-controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site, also located in Nevada. A version of the bill sponsored by Rep. John Ensign, R-Nev., has already received House approval.

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