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What the county commission really did this week about Red Rock

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Christopher Smith

Red Rock National Conservation Area

On Wednesday, I described the Clark County Commission’s surprise decision about a housing development on Blue Diamond Hill as “a punt.” (Unknown to me, attorney Justin Jones, who represents the development’s opposition, Save Red Rock, used the same word when being interviewed by the Review-Journal.) Having had a couple more days to study the situation and discuss it with those involved, I think it might be more accurate to say the commissioners set a pick for Save Red Rock.

I learned that sports term watching my stepson play lacrosse as a teenager. Setting a pick is a defensive move in which one player blocks a teammate’s opponent, allowing the teammate to break free of the opponent and, hopefully, score. The player setting the pick sees his teammate heading toward him, pesky defender close behind, and stands still in just the right spot, turning himself into an obstacle.

In the case of Wednesday’s hearing, the county commission could see Save Red Rock charging toward its goal of thwarting a 5,000-unit housing tract on the edge of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, with its formidable opponent — an amalgam of developer Jim Rhodes, planner Ron Krater and attorney Jay Brown wrapped in the corporate banner of Gypsum Resources — breathing down its neck. Not having the ball or being able to actively intervene, but still wanting to facilitate a score for their constituents (and their own political futures), commissioners Susan Brager and Steve Sisolak apparently decided the best defense would be to stop Rhodes in his tracks and let Save Red Rock take its best shot.

That shot will come in the form of Jones’ legal case that Gypsum Resources’ 2011 concept plan expired. (For background on this, see below) He’s expected to argue that the developer didn’t correctly follow the procedure for moving a concept plan through the process; for instance, filing the right paperwork and paying related fees on time. If Jones won this case, Gypsum Resources would have to go back to square one, having now withdrawn its 2016 plan and having had a judge decide that its 2011 plan is dead. (What would happen then will be the subject of many future news stories, but it seems likely that Gypsum Resources would simply re-file its 2016 plan.)

I can see at least three problems with the pick-setting analogy. One is, it’s not clear whose team the county is on. Sisolak has been on a damage-control media tour since Wednesday, and makes a convincing case that he and the other commissioners would actually prefer to see nothing built on Blue Diamond Hill. It’s also true that Rhodes has property rights and the commission is bound by the county’s agreement with him to negotiate the terms of a development in good faith. And yet, there’s something unsettling about county attorney Rob Warhola producing, at 4:30 p.m. on the day of the hearing, a never-before-seen receipt that he says proves Gypsum Resources filed its paperwork and paid its fee for the 2011 concept plan on time. Where was that before — during last fall’s planning commission meetings, for instance, when the assumption that the 2011 plan had expired seemed to go without saying (and when, Jones claims, Krater himself referred to it as expired)?

Another dissimilarity between the county hearing and a lacrosse game is the stakes. Among the 48,000 people who signed Save Red Rock’s petition against the development and the 100-plus who were willing to wait hours for their chance to testify at Wednesday’s hearing were a considerable number of astronomers, biologists, economists, geologists, business leaders and other experts who shed plausible, technical light on the permanent devastation that the project could cause. These educated professionals appear convinced that Rhodes is playing with the future viability of our community.

And finally, there’s the sportsmanship question. Even the worst coaches teach their young team members the importance of playing fair, being a good winner and so on. One wonders, naively, why Rhodes is even doing this. Several of those giving public testimony asked why he couldn’t build the development somewhere else. Sure, he has the right to conduct his business and make money. But why at Red Rock? Why spoil the environment and promote urban sprawl? Why, when so many people are so passionately against it? Some members of the public seemed genuinely shocked that someone could value profit over the public good.

Toward the end of Jones’ and Sisolak’s conversation on KNPR today, the county commissioner asked the attorney if they could work together to restart negotiations with the BLM. Listeners and readers commenting on the story online suggested creating a fund to buy the property from Rhodes and turn it into a public park. That sounds like a nice win-win.

Of course, before any of that can happen, we’ll see whether Save Red Rock scores its shot in court. If it does, the five commissioners who voted in favor of letting Gypsum Resources withdraw its 2016 plan will look like heroes. But if Save Red Rock fails to convince a judge that the 2011 plan has expired, no one wins … except, of course, the developer.

(Background: Rhodes bought the gypsum mine on top of Blue Diamond Hill in 2002. As a rural area of Clark County, the property is zoned for one house every two acres (give or take), but Rhodes has been trying for the last 15 years to build more than that. The community, county and state have fought him in a variety of venues, including the Supreme Court, and so far lost. In 2010, the county and Rhodes settled their lawsuit, agreeing that he would develop the land with input from the community.

The following year, he submitted a concept plan to the county; the county approved it with the condition that he incorporate a couple dozen elements to help preserve the peace and quiet. But that planning process was put on hold while the parties tried to negotiate a land swap with the BLM. Those negotiations stretched over several years and ultimately failed. The BLM said it was not its policy to take over land as ravaged by mining as Rhodes’ is. Then, in the summer of 2016, Gypsum Resources submitted another concept plan, which included several of the conditions laid out by the county in 2011. A vote on that plan was on the agenda for the County Commission meeting this week, and hundreds of people wearing red Save Red Rock T-shirts showed up to voice their opposition. State and national politicians, celebrities and community organizations were among those who testified over the course of seven hours.

But in the end, the commission didn’t vote on the 2016 concept plan. Instead, on the advice of its attorney, it moved to let Gypsum Resources withdraw that plan and go forward with the 2011 plan, which the attorney had determined (to the apparent surprise of many present, including at least two commissioners) was still in effect. The motion passed 5-2, and Gypsum Resources withdrew its concept plan. As of this writing, the county considers the 2011 plan still in effect, so that planning process will ostensibly pick up where it left off five years ago. Many questions remain about what that plan includes and how the details of it will be decided.)

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