YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections
(Page 2 of 4)

Desert Connections

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

In addition, while the private owner controlled all 42,842 acres, the federal government had retained title to almost a third of those acres to maintain a preserve for the desert tortoise, Nevada's state reptile, which is shielded by the Endangered Species Act.

The tortoise's habitat was concentrated in a wedge-shaped area in the middle of the site. Here too, development seemed to be prohibited.

"For eight years, almost on a daily basis I have been working on solving the problems of the site," Whittemore said recently.

Today, with the obstacles gone and construction under way, Whittemore's efforts seem to have paid off.

Land's Recent History

It was the exigencies of national security that put Coyote Springs in play. In 1988, Congress turned the land over to defense contractor Aerojet-General Corp. to test rockets. The southern third of the land is in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, and the rest is in Lincoln County.

The rocket range was never created and the land remained essentially untouched until 1998, when Whittemore paid Aerojet-General at least $15 million for title to the privately owned portion of the site and for the rights under a rent-free government lease of the tortoise habitat.

Soon afterward, Whittemore reduced his financial exposure by selling the rights to 7,500 acre-feet of groundwater and a well to the Southern Nevada Water Authority for $25 million. But he retained other water rights at Coyote Springs and has agreements with Lincoln County and its private water company partner to buy more for the development.

Almost immediately, Whittemore began to push for the title to -- and unrestricted use of -- the tortoise habitat in the middle of the site. He argued that moving the tortoise preserve to the eastern edge of the site, where it would abut federal land, would help the desert tortoise and remove an impediment to his project.

In 1999, regional officials of the Interior Department refused, saying that only Congress could approve moving the preserve. Over the next five years, Whittemore bombarded the government with proposals.

Finally, in 2004, the Bureau of Land Management agreed to give him title to nearly 10,000 acres of tortoise land in the middle of his site in exchange for equal acreage along the fringes. They called the swap a "minor" boundary adjustment.

Appraisal Not Done

No federal appraisal was made to determine whether the land the government got was equal in value to the land it gave up, and some public land experts say the exchange may have been illegal.

"The law clearly wouldn't allow a 'boundary adjustment' of 10,000 acres," said Janine Blaeloch of the Western Lands Project, a group that advocates for public lands. "Congress drew the map of the leased lands. Congress would have to change it."

The bureau said it agreed to the land swap because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said moving the preserve would be good for the tortoise.

Neither Sen. Reid nor Leif Reid played a role in getting the tortoise preserve relocated, Whittemore said.

In 2002, Sen. Reid went to work on removing the power line corridor.

First, he and others in Nevada's congressional delegation tucked an obscurely worded provision into a huge land bill to benefit a wide range of interests in Clark County. The provision shifted the power corridor off Whittemore's land and onto federal land along the west side of U.S. 93.

The land west of the highway had been earmarked for "wilderness study," but a separate section of the bill reclassified the land to allow power lines.

As drafted, the bill would have done Whittemore a large financial favor: It required him to pay nothing for getting the power corridor moved to the west side of the highway -- even though it increased the value of his 10,500 acres on the east side by clearing it for development.

The giveaway prompted questions from the Bureau of Land Management and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

With the legislative clock running out, Reid and his Nevada colleagues backed off, removing from the bill the provision moving the power line corridor.

But another provision -- one that reclassified the status of the land on the west side so that it eventually could accommodate a power line corridor -- survived, and President Bush signed the bill in November 2002.

A year and a half later, Reid and the Nevada delegation tried again, inserting language moving the power corridor to the west side of the highway into a public land bill for Lincoln County.

This time, Whittemore had to compensate the government on the basis of "fair market value," but that was defined in such a way that would have required him to pay only about $160,000.

Drawing fresh criticism, Reid and the delegation changed the cost provision to say government appraisers should determine what Whittemore had to pay -- $10.4 million as it turned out. The bill became law in November 2004.

Los Angeles Times Articles