To sprawl or not to sprawl, that’s the dilemma

By Chris Giunchigliani

The future of the Mojave Desert and the people who live here are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are inextricably tied. By protecting one, we protect the other. 

Unfortunately, a legislative measure that is in the works will dramatically alter the future of the Southern Nevada community and environment for many years to come.

Clark County officials are asking federal lawmakers to introduce a proposal that will favor real estate developers and sprawl at the expense of our public lands, wildlife and climate. It will expand residential and commercial development all the way to the California border along I-15. By increasing how much Southern Nevadans drive, it will also increase dirty emissions and air pollution in a place that already doesn’t meet federal air quality standards. And it will make climate change worse in the fastest warming city in the United States.

This is not acceptable. 

Late in my term on the Clark County Commission, I voted to support a resolution that gave county officials the authority to start drafting this proposal. I was told tribal, conservation, and wildlife concerns could be worked out. If I could, I would reverse my vote now that it’s become clear how the legislation would dramatically shape the future of Las Vegas.  

Unless drastic steps are taken, we are squandering an opportunity to draft a measure that could benefit underserved communities, invest in mass transit, reverse historical inequity in housing and real estate, protect our treasured landscapes, and defend our wildlife and natural resources. Instead, we have a proposal that hands over public lands to private interests, sidesteps environmental laws and ignores the important climate realities facing our community.

The proposal, known as the Clark County lands bill, will double-down on patterns of unsustainable and inequitable development that have brought us to the brink of climate disaster, polluted our air, and marginalized certain communities. 

Why? Tearing up our public lands will decrease the ability for the desert to capture greenhouse gas emissions. Despite conservation policies in place, it will ensure more cars, homes, concrete and pavement consume places that are now occupied by wildlife, plant life and outdoor recreators. More homes invite more lawns, swimming pools and sprinklers drenching water-thirsty landscaping and grasses. (Maybe the latter is why the bill also includes provisions that will aid the Southern Nevada Water Authority in getting their long sought-after pipeline to take groundwater from Eastern Nevada. )

Finally, the bill as written will ensure that wealthy developers continue to build exclusive housing for the affluent in far flung locations while many Las Vegans struggle to make ends meet in a place with the lowest supply of affordable housing in the nation.

Prior to the recession, one of the biggest concerns in Southern Nevada was sprawl. This current bill draft makes me wonder: Are we suffering from amnesia? Did politicians not learn from past mistakes?

This proposed legislation allows developers to rip up public lands from Mesquite to Henderson and all the way to Primm and Laughlin. 

More than 50,000 acres of public lands would be handed over to developer interests. Get ready for more traffic, more construction, and more dirty emissions. What’s more: The bill facilitates endangered species permitting for another 300,000 acres to be bulldozed for sprawl. That would effectively double the size of Las Vegas, allowing it to spill out of our valley into the adjacent desert landscape.

While the bill makes one scant reference to attainable housing, it does nothing to allocate funding for those opportunities. There’s also no mention of light rail, electric buses or bicycle infrastructure that will support the 4 million people who will call Vegas home if this new measure passes. 

The proposal also asks Congress to gut the Endangered Species Act for Southern Nevada and exempts Clark County from a bevy of bedrock environmental laws that are anathema to big business. A bill of this kind has never been put forth in Congress. But rest assured, this will be a playbook for other communities if a precedent is set.   

Proponents of the bill will tell you that this measure will protect public lands. Indeed, a few select areas will earn Wilderness Designations. But at what cost?  

Our community is at a crossroads. Are we a community of the future or are we stuck in the ways of the past? Are we going to learn from old patterns of development that have left us with polluted air, a warming climate, and severe inequality in housing? Or are we going to chart a new path forward, to remedy the problems we’ve created for ourselves and set a course toward a more inclusive, more equitable, more environmentally sensitive future?

I have faith that Clark County will rethink this legislation and determine whether it’s even needed.  Adopting true regional smart growth policies, requiring developers to focus on and provide attainable housing, expand mass transit, and funding   education and workforce programs. These would truly benefit their constituents and our communities.

Chris Giunchigliani is a former Clark County Commissioner and former member of the Nevada State Assembly.