An Idea Whose Time Came and Never Left

Why an urban growth boundary makes sense for the Valley—now more than ever

Dubbed “ring around the rosie” and “ring around the collar,” and portrayed as a noose around the Valley on the cover of a contracting industry trade magazine, the proposal I made as a state senator in 1997 to create an urban growth boundary in Southern Nevada caused quite a stir.

Back then, the concept of managed growth was pretty heretical. In retrospect, though, it sounds pretty good. After two decades of untrammeled growth, the Las Vegas Valley is facing the worst foreclosure rates in the country, the highest unemployment—including thousands of jobs lost in construction and related fields—a devastated housing market, and no funding to finish infrastructure projects needed to serve the leapfrog development of the boom times. How many people, inside government and out, have lamented over the last three years that if only we had been a little smarter, a little less greedy, a little more cautious, a little more willing to plan for the future, we wouldn’t be in the fix we’re in today?

My bill—known officially as the Las Vegas Planned Growth Act and unofficially as the Ring Around the Valley—did two things: First, it established a generous urban development zone of some 120,000 acres within the Las Vegas Valley and provided that no urban services or development would be extended beyond that zone. The boundaries of the zone, the so-called ring, were not set by me but rather had been drawn over a period of several years by the Public Lands Task Force, composed of stakeholders including developers, elected officials, planners, environmentalists and representatives from federal, state and local government agencies. It was the same line used by Sen. Richard Bryan and Rep. John Ensign in the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act.

Second, the bill required that when developers submitted major plans for city or county approval, they also submit an infrastructure impact statement. These impact statements would make relevant data concerning schools, streets, water and sewer, and public safety available to the public. This information would help local officials make informed decisions when it came time to decide whether to approve developments within the ring.

The bill was introduced by the Assembly Committee on Infrastructure chaired by David Goldwater, a Democrat from Las Vegas. I took this unusual route because that specially created committee was taking field trips to assess infrastructure needs throughout the state, was hearing funding bills for water pipeline and school construction, and had the staff expertise to deal with the relatively new “smart growth” issue from the state perspective. I also felt that the bill had no chance of passage out of the Republican-controlled Senate without some momentum behind it.

Opposition quickly mounted from local governments that benefit from growth and property taxes, and from developers, contractors, real-estate agents, home builders and chambers of commerce. Meanwhile, environmental groups, planners and an overwhelming majority of residents were supportive of doing something about the unbridled growth in the Valley that was causing air pollution, traffic jams, overcrowded schools and potential water shortages.

In my testimony from that debate, I said repeatedly that I did not want to stop growth but plan for and manage it. I acknowledged that growth had been good for Nevada but cautioned that we were fast approaching the point of diminishing returns. I argued that it was unfair to continue asking taxpayers to foot the bill for needed infrastructure to accommodate sprawl without putting in place measures both to hold developers accountable and to protect our community when the growth inevitably slowed down. “Here at the end of the century, we have a small window of opportunity, which is also a window of vulnerability,” I wrote in a 1997 Las Vegas Review-Journal op-ed piece. “We cannot afford to wait.”

AB 490 passed out of the Assembly overwhelmingly, but it died in the Senate Government Affairs Committee chaired by Las Vegas Republican Ann O’Connell, who refused to bring the bill up for a vote. The following session, I was able to resurrect and pass the provision requiring impact studies for major developments, which the city of Las Vegas dubbed the DINA (Development Infrastructure Needs Assessment), just to remind folks who was responsible for this “onerous” new burden.

Today, 14 years later, as the Las Vegas Valley tries to pull out of its depression, I wonder if we had passed AB 490 and enacted the Ring Around the Valley, would things be any different? I believe so. By working together, we could have much more successfully guided efforts to maintain and enhance the ecological integrity, economic viability, social equity and overall livability of the Las Vegas Valley. By focusing inward and with sustainability as our guide, we could have improved our quality of life, attracted businesses, diversified the housing market, saved taxpayer dollars and invested wisely in mass transit and other infrastructure that would help revitalize the core of the metropolitan area.

The great American Western writer Wallace Stegner famously said that the great challenge of the West is to build a civilization to match its setting. We have been blessed here in Southern Nevada by both nature and circumstance, but as we have now learned the hard way, good luck is not enough. Let us use this time of challenge to re-evaluate our previous land-use policies, put in place needed tools to manage growth in fast times and slow, and rethink what kind of community we want to leave for posterity.