By Craig A. Ruark, LEED AP (BD&C), Freelancer Writer
But who is the cat and who is the mouse?
It has been said, that if you look up the “controversy” in the dictionary, a picture of Jim Rhodes will appear. Not that Jim Rhodes has not built some pretty nice homes and communities in Las Vegas because he has. However, the wake of government battles and litigation from contractors, architects, and engineering firms that follow each new development gets longer with each project.
Currently, Rhodes is applying for a zoning change from low density rural to high-density community development on a ridge that sits 1,500 feet above the pristine Red Rock Conservation Area. In his proposal, Rhodes company Gypsum Resources LLC. proposes to build a “village” on the plateau of Blue Diamond Hill, the site of a gypsum mining operation that has been in existence for over 80 years.
Gypsum, a chalky like substance, is composed of calcium sulfate dehydrate and used in the production of construction wallboard. Gypsum is ideal because the product is noncombustible, easy to install, has an insulation factor, accepts most finishes, and is durable. Durable, that is until it meets water. The one weakness in wallboard is that the gypsum is water soluble and tends to melt under a massive amount of H2O.
Since spending $54 million to purchase the James Hardy Gypsum Mine in 2003, Rhodes has made it known that he intends to reclaim the mining site in order to build a “scenic village” on the approximately 2,100 acres of land.
In 2010 a conceptual plan was submitted to the Clark County Planning Commission for a waiver from the currently zoned one home per two-acre parcel to a higher density of 2.5 homes per acre, resulting in the construction of over seven thousand homes. The Commission, in 2011, came back with stipulations that lowered the amount to just over 5,000 homes and a stipulation as to where the access road to the property can be built along with a provision for recreational green space.
In the meantime, a group of environmental activists calling themselves ‘Save Red Rock’ had formed to protect the Red Rock Conservation area from any residential encroachment and protested before the County Commission during the public comment portion of the agenda.
Because of the public outcry against the residential development project, Rhodes agreed to entertain a land swap with the Bureau of Land Management. The problem was, convincing the BLM of the deal. Rhodes along with members of the Clark County Commission and Save Red Rock traveled to Washington D.C. to speak with the head of the BLM. The proposal was a land swap that would allow Rhodes to develop an equal amount of property elsewhere in the valley and for the BLM to take ownership of the private parcels of land on Blue Diamond Hill. After four years of discussion, the BLM finally determined that due to the extensive mining that has been performed on the site over the last eight decades, that the land did not have and environmental value and that the BLM was not interested in a land exchange.
After the BLM had made their final decision, there was a debate as to whether, after so much time had passed, the 2011 conceptual plan was still valid. The Save Red Rock group took the matter to court to ask a judge to rule on the validity of the 2011 conceptual plan, and that case is still pending.
During all of this time, the County Commission sued the Save Red Rock group to prevent them from re-hashing all of their protest items during future meetings. The County lost that case and was told that Save Red Rock has the right to speak at all public meetings.
The decision by the BLM and the pending court case left Rhodes in a quandary. So not to lose any more time, the Rhodes team then drafted a new 2016 Conceptual Plan that incorporated all of the Commission’s previous comments and submitted the new concept to the County Commission for approval.
Based upon the filing of the Rhodes 2016 plan, the project was properly noticed and placed on the agenda of February 22, 2017, meeting. The Save Red Rock group, who had been actively working to acquire signed petitions against the construction of over 5,000 homes and some businesses on Blue Diamond Hill, went to work asking protesters to show up at the County Commission Meeting. On February 22nd, there were over 120 people that spoke against the development, with a maximum time of three minutes each, and approximately 20 individuals, most of who identified themselves as Rhodes employees, stood up to speak on behalf of the development. Save Red Rock also presented the Commission with 45,000 petitions against a residential development on Blue Diamond Hill.
After seven hours of passionate pleas on behalf of the Save Red Rock group, it was time for the Commissioners to weigh in on the subject. Commissioner Steve Sisolak opened the discussion with a series of questions to the County’s legal counsel Robert Warhola, during this questioning it was brought out that according to County records, Rhodes had paid the fees and filed the required follow-up paperwork in a timely manner and that the 2011 Conceptual Plan was still valid. “Whatever you decide today, the 2011 concept plan is in place, and the developer can move forward regardless,” Warhola, who specializes in land use and zoning law, told commissioners.
“Well, if the 2011 plan is still valid, why are we voting on a second Conceptual Plan,” asked Sisolak.
With that news, Commissioner Susan Brager, whose district the project is located, made a statement that she will vote against the 2016 plan unless Gypsum Resources wanted to withdraw the plan without prejudice so that there would only be one plan in place. Project planning consultant and spokesman Ron Krater said the plan submitted in 2016 was done for “an abundance of caution,” and Attorney Jay Brown, representing Gypsum Resources agreed to the withdrawal without prejudice.
A motion was made by Brager to accept the withdrawal, and Sisolak opened the discussion on the motion to the rest of the Commissioners.
Chris Giunchigliani took a great deal of time debating with Warhola as to the validity of the 2011 plan and stating her objection to any development at all on Blue Diamond Hill. Joining Giunchigliani in expressing concerns over the development was Commissioner Lawrence Weekly and upon voting both Giunchigliani and Weekly were the only two dissenting votes.
When the decision was announced, there was a burst of loud booing and a few cheers from the crowd that had been sitting for over seven hours and felt that their voices were not heard.
Sisolak, appearing on KNPR’s State of Nevada, claimed that his vote to accept the withdrawal of the 2016 plan was vote to help save Red Rock stating that the commission did not “approve one home, one street light, one store, one road going into Blue Diamond Hill or Red Rock for that matter.” He said the commissioners voted to let Rhodes withdraw his 2016 plan for the site, which essentially sets the clock back to 2011.
Save Red Rock attorney Justin Jones, also appearing on KNPR’s State of Nevada, had a different take on the outcome of Commission meeting. “I think the commissioners had an opportunity on Wednesday to do the right thing and turn down the proposal that was before them,” he said.
But what if the 2016 Plan had not been withdrawn and the Commission had voted against its approval, the result would be the same, with the 2011 plan still in place. And since the 2011 plan was not on the agenda, no action could be taken on that issue without proper notice.
So now the games begin.
Rhodes must complete a traffic study, drainage study, and show how they intend to bring all the utilities up a 1,500 hill to support the community that they want to build.
Based on current statistics, water will perhaps be the largest obstacle that this development faces. The average family of four uses 400 gallons of water per day. Assuming just 300 gallons per day average for 5,000 homes would mean a minimum of 1,500,000 gallons of water each day that would need to be pumped 1,500 vertical feet to serve that community. It is a given that the Developer must install the power, sewer, and water lines to the houses and businesses. However, building on that plateau would also require between 4 and 6-million gallons of water to be stored to serve that specific community. Given the distance from current utilities to the new development and the cost to build a pumping station and water storage reservoir will cost the developer upwards to $100 million.
If the County Commission decides after seeing the traffic study and other plans that they will not change the zoning to allow more than one home per two acres resulting in a maximum of about 700 homes it, according to Sisolak, “would be very cost prohibitive to build the infrastructure needed.”
The County, at this point, is in control of what happens on Blue Diamond Hill. They have the right to determine how the access road will be built, the type of lighting that can be used, how much water will be needed to account for emergencies, and all other components that are ruled on for a typical subdivision.
The question is, how will the County Commission act when given the hard choices? In addition to the water and utilities, there is the following issues to consider.
- Drainage: Once you build roads, sidewalks, buildings and other solid surfaces, you significantly decrease the amount of area that can absorb rainfall and increase runoff. Storm runoff picks up whatever is on the ground (e.g. oils, grease, herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, paper, etc.), and no matter how well you build the drainage infrastructure, there is over 1,500’ of fall from the Blue Diamond Ridge plateau to State Route 159, and much of that runoff will collect down below, damaging the existing environment.
- Trash: In addition to rain events, the wind will be an important factor. Humans generate trash, and a great deal of it is plastic and paper. In my neighborhood, It seems as if the wind always blows on trash day and when I look out my window, I always see trash blowing down my street. Just think about how far paper and plastic will blow from an elevation 1,500 feet above the Red Rock Conservation area with a prevailing wind from the south.
- Light Pollution: The developer stated that they would use “dark sky technology” to keep the light pollution from hindering the night sky. However, no matter how good the technology, with 5,000 homes and additional businesses’ along with street lights, landscaping lights, and security lights, the top of Blue Diamond Hill will look like a cloud of light suspended in mid-air. The reflection from the concrete, sides of buildings, glass, vehicles, and other reflective surfaces will create a dome effect over the plateau and significantly decrease the visibility of the sky in that direction.
- Visual Impact: The developer presented charts showing that only 12% of the structures would be visible from State Route 159. Those statistics are based on the site lines to the current surface elevations of the plateau. However, the developer showed plans to construct two and three story buildings which would rise 23 to 35-feet above the surface. Of course, those building along with trees, light poles, and other ancillary structures will create a very un-natural look to the plateau compared to the surrounding terrain, without a natural transition and more than half of the structure roofs would be visible from the road below. As you move away from the ridge the roof lines, trees, and other tall structures will be entirely visible, and there will be a stark contrast between the desert brown rocks and sharp peaks surrounding the flat plateau of imported trees, plants, and structures.
Not only are the views from the Red Rock Conservation area important, but equally so are the views from Las Vegas looking west. From most of the Valley, Blue Diamond Hill is very visible at the forefront of the Spring Mountain Range. To build a plateau town in front of the beautiful Spring Mountain Range spoils the natural beauty for hundreds of thousands of residents who may never hike or bike Red Rock but still enjoy the beauty from afar.
- Traffic: Although the developer has agreed to have the road access to the development on State Route 160 (one mile east of SR 159); there will no doubt be a significant amount of traffic that will use SR 159 to Charleston in order to access the 215 and Summerlin Parkway. The traffic of SR 159 will significantly increase.
- Soil Stabilization: Of course, the developer is responsible for the proper development of a project site and not the County Commission. However, having worked for two geotechnical engineering companies, I have learned that developers cut corners as often as they can in the name of profit. I have seen nesting issues, improper compaction issues, and issues were over excavation to a certain depth was called for and not performed. As it has been pointed out, Blue Diamond Hill is the site of an open-pit gypsum mine which has been excavated over the past 80 years. As it was pointed out, gypsum dissolves when applied with water over time. Even with suitable import fill, the gypsum will still be subject to water over time. Placing landscaping for 5,000 homes and some businesses on that plateau will require irrigation. It may take ten or more years but water seeping down to the gypsum base will start dissolving the mineral and cause caverns to develop. Perhaps, if the project is approved, the Developer should be made to tell future home buyers, in very large letters, that: “The home you are buying has been built on a former gypsum mine, and while the Developer has used prudent engineering to develop the foundation, it cannot be guaranteed that over time, the gypsum below will not dissolve and create cavernous sinkholes.”