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Desert Connections

August 20, 2006|Chuck Neubauer and Richard T. Cooper | Times Staff Writers

Coyote Springs, Nev. — Even now, as heavy equipment peels back the cactus and creosote bush to carve out roads and building sites, it's hard to believe that this 67-square-mile tract of empty desert will blossom into one of the biggest cities in the fastest-growing state in the country and the projected home to more than 200,000 people.

One of the most inhospitable places in the country, Coyote Springs Valley is so barren that, until recently, its best use was thought to be as a weapons test range.

Yet the valley -- an hour northeast of Las Vegas -- is on its way to becoming a real estate development of historic proportions, with as many as 159,000 homes, 16 golf courses and a full complement of stores and service facilities. At nearly 43,000 acres, Coyote Springs covers almost twice as much space as the next-largest development in a state famous for outsized building projects.

By comparison, Irvine Co., one of Southern California's largest developers, controls about 44,000 acres in Orange County.

Helping make Coyote Springs come alive was an alliance between a multimillionaire developer and one of the highest-ranking members of Congress: Nevada Democrat Harry Reid, the Senate minority leader and a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

The relationship between developers such as Harvey Whittemore and politicians such as Reid is especially close in Nevada, home to a small fraternity of movers and shakers, powerful demands of rapid population growth and a huge amount of federally owned land.

Over the last four years, Reid has used his influence in Washington to help the developer, Nevada super-lobbyist Whittemore, clear obstacles from Coyote Springs' path.

At one point, Reid proposed opening the way for Whittemore to develop part of the site for free -- something for which the developer later agreed to pay the government $10 million.

As the project advanced, Reid received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Whittemore. The contributions not only went to Reid's Senate campaigns, but also to his leadership fund, which he used to help bankroll the campaigns of Democratic colleagues.

Whittemore also helped advance the legal careers of two of Reid's four sons. One of the two, Leif Reid, who is Whittemore's personal lawyer, has represented the developer throughout the Coyote Springs project, including in negotiations with federal officials.

Whittemore, solidly built and well over 6 feet tall, is a partner in Nevada's biggest law firm and a veteran lobbyist for the state's gambling, liquor and tobacco industries.

His influence crosses party lines. Nevada's junior U.S. senator, Republican John Ensign, and GOP Rep. Jim Gibbons, whose district includes Coyote Springs, supported the project at key stages. But Reid's power in the Senate sets him apart and his relationship with Whittemore is deeply rooted.

"You have to understand how close the Whittemore and Reid families are," the developer said recently. "My relationship with Sen. Reid goes back decades." The senator concurs, calling Whittemore a longtime friend.

In a small state, Whittemore said, personal relationships are particularly important: "This is not New York. This is Nevada."

Reid, who declined to be interviewed for this article, cites economic grounds for his support of the project, as do his Nevada congressional colleagues.

"There is a reason every major Republican and Democratic officeholder in Nevada has fought for Coyote Springs -- it will create jobs and make the state an even better place to live and raise a family," said a Reid spokesman.

Nevada's congressional delegation has treated Whittemore no differently from any other developer, Reid's office said.

'Unique in the World'

For Whittemore, Coyote Springs is more than a financial investment. In words that soar beyond developers' customary hyperbole, he called it an opportunity "to create a beautiful place which is unique in the world -- not just Nevada or the United States, but the world."

More than a decade ago, Whittemore recognized the site's potential. It is 5 miles wide and stretches 13 miles along the east side of U.S. 93 between parallel mountain ranges.

Equally important, the site was in private hands -- rare in a state where the federal government owns 87% of the land. Nothing remotely as large and well-located might come on the market again.

There was just one catch: For all its possibilities, the land had serious obstacles to development that only the federal government could remove.

First, Congress had created a mile-wide power line corridor covering 10,500 acres and running the length of the property close to the highway. No power lines had been built, but development inside the corridor seemed to be precluded.

A second problem was that ancient stream beds and washes crisscrossed the site. Though dry most of the year, as part of the valley's ecosystem they could not be bulldozed or otherwise altered without federal permits.

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