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Advocates Sue Over Nevada Land Exchange

California and the West

Groups charge in federal court that the Bureau of Land Management violated the law in its swap with Coyote Springs developer Harvey Whittemore.

August 29, 2006|Chuck Neubauer | Times Staff Writer

Two public-land advocacy groups filed a lawsuit in federal district court Monday in Reno to overturn a land swap between the federal government and Coyote Springs, a controversial Nevada real estate development north of Las Vegas.

The groups charged that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management violated environmental and public-land laws when it agreed to the swap.

They agreed to trade -- at no cost -- nearly 10,000 acres of federal leased lands set aside for the desert tortoise in the middle of the project for equal acreage of developer-owned land at the edge of the site.

The move helped consolidate the private holdings of Coyote Springs developer Harvey Whittemore and may have enhanced the value of his property.

Neither Whittemore nor the bureau, part of the Interior Department, offered any comment Monday on the lawsuit.

Whittemore's dream of building a city 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas with as many as 159,000 homes and 16 golf courses has drawn scrutiny for the role of his friend Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Reid has helped Whittemore remove obstacles to development. But Whittemore, a Nevada lawyer and lobbyist, has said neither Reid nor his son Leif Reid -- Whittemore's personal attorney -- played any role in the swap.

The lawsuit charges that the bureau acted illegally in changing the boundaries of the leased land and the property Whittemore owned. The lawsuit wants to reverse the exchange.

"This was a huge change in favor of Whittemore. It rearranged 10,000 acres of the lease land," said Janine Blaeloch, director of the anti-privatization group Western Lands Project, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The bureau "just did it instantaneously," she said.

The bureau "has refused to follow the law governing our public lands and left us with no choice but to file this suit," said Charles Watson, director of the Nevada Outdoor Recreation Assn., the other plaintiff in the suit.

The lawsuit charges that the bureau did not prepare an environmental assessment or appraisal before changing the boundaries.

"There has to be an environmental analysis that tells us what configuration really is better for the tortoise -- that has never been done," Blaeloch said. "If it turns out the exchange is the best thing, the public needs an accounting of the land values involved."

The bureau has maintained that it moved the boundaries because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it would benefit the desert tortoise to be closer to other federal lands and not in the middle of the development. The bureau called it a minor boundary adjustment.

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times reported on Reid's role in assisting Whittemore in getting necessary federal approvals for parts of the project.

Reid's office said his involvement was legal, proper and appropriate.

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