The City of Mesquite and City Council have actively struggled for close to four years to resolve issues associated with the Virgin River Habitat Conservation and Recovery Program. They are no closer now to a solution than they were four years.
The program is required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) under the Endangered Species Act to help mitigate the effects of new construction in the Virgin River watershed. The City must develop and implement a plan under the program which they have been trying to do since 2002.
After millions of dollars spent on consultants, the plan is no closer now to completion than it was more than ten years ago.
Currently Mesquite is the only city in Clark County and indeed the entire State of Nevada that charges two conservation mitigation fees and operates under two conservation plans.
The rest of Clark County charges only one $550 conservation mitigation fee to developers per graded acre. The rest of the county only operates under one plan, the Clark County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan.
Why is Mesquite so different? Don’t ask the FWS because right now they can’t tell you and neither can the County.
Under the Mesquite Lands Act of 1986 and its amendments afterwards, the BLM deeded about 10,000 acres to Mesquite for future development. At the same time, the City received about $10 million dollars that was earmarked for conservation mitigation efforts associated with new development.
In 2007 the City passed an ordinance that mandated a $500 conservation fee charged to developers per graded acre. Close to $350,000 has been collected over the years. To date, none of the money has been spent.
That’s on top of the $550 fee Clark County charges under its conservation plan and program. Close to $100 million dollars has been collected over the years. The county has spent nearly $50 million of that with the rest laying unencumbered.
The City signed a Memorandum of Agreement in 2008 that that would outline a framework for development of a ‘multi-party’ habitat plan. Here’s the kicker – the City of Mesquite was the only one required to do anything under the ‘multi-party’ plan and the only one required to charge the second mitigation fee.
And even though the City didn’t have a plan in place, didn’t know the true cost of any conservation mitigation work, and didn’t know how the money would be spent, the then-current Mayor Holecheck pushed through the second fee anyway. It’s kind of the old government adage, “let’s the collect the money and then we’ll figure out how to use it.”
And that $10 million dollars the City received through that Lands Act? There’s not much left. Consultants have collected close to $7 million dollars of it. The City has nothing to show for their work.
The City has worked closely with the Clark County Conservation office, the BLM and the FWS over the last four years to put Mesquite on an equal footing with the rest of the county. That is, one fee, one plan.
At the City Council meeting Sep. 8, Richard Secrist, Development Services Director, said that his office had reached an agreement with the FWS regarding the goal of one fee, one plan. However, on the eve of finally implementing something, anything, in December 2014 the FWS said they wanted something different. They never said what.
The FWS insist that there is some damage to two fish species in the Virgin River. However, they have also said that the damage is not caused by anything that’s going on in Mesquite – development or otherwise. Apparently there are invasive fishes coming upstream from Lake Mead that’s hurting the native species in the Virgin River.
The head of the Clark County Conservation office in Las Vegas has also stated that she didn’t know why FWS was pressing Mesquite so hard on the fish. She said she never thought the development in Mesquite was impacting fish anyway.
Besides, the Clark County Plan already has provisions in it to mitigate the fish in the Virgin River. But rather than abandon plans to develop a whole new program – thus charging extra fees – in Mesquite, the County administratively decided not to implement the provisions in its plan. So while the rest of the County is covered by the Plan and the $550 fee, Mesquite is left hanging.
And, the Memorandum of Agreement Mesquite signed in 2007 that helped start all this mess and authorizes the City to continue collecting the local fee has expired.
Are you confused yet? Everyone else is.
All the government agencies, from the local to the federal level, have acknowledged that there is no environmental damage inflicted on endangered species from development in the Mesquite area.
The City Council unanimously approved seeking a public meeting with the FWS to gain an understanding and firm commitment on the future of the two plans and two fees.
There stands to be a flurry of earth grading near the new I-15 Exit 118 interchange in the near future. As it stands now, any new development will pay the two fees – twice what they would in any other part of the County or State. This is not just an environmental issue, it’s an economic development issue.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nevada Department of Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service should first explain themselves to the public and come clean about the real impetus behind this mess. They should finally accept the fact that Mesquite must operate under one fee, one plan just like everyone else in the County and the State.
The County should implement Phase II of its plan that covers the endangered fish in the Virgin River using the millions of dollars it has sitting in a bank account somewhere just waiting to be used.
The City should suspend collection of the local, second fee until this mess is finally settled. And then, it should collect either the $550 County fee or the local $500 fee but not both.
And, don’t spend any more money on consultants.