Las Vegas is having a city government election soon, and one of the noxious byproducts of the process are the
debates among the ranting power-trippers who are scrapping for the jobs, which completely took over a perfectly good local news-talk program pretty much every singe day last week. The discussions are boring, and depressing, and mostly pointless, but they occasionally offer a bit of insight into the kind of a policy debate that electoral politics allows. For example, here’s an excerpt from Tuesday’s show, in which we hear from Jennifer Taylor (the challenger for the seat in Ward 6) and Steve Ross (the sleazebag currently in charge). Here they work out the range of politically acceptable debate over
development in the desert around Las Vegas (which is to say, government hand-outs to politically-connected multimillionaire
developers, and government land-grabs in which they arbitrarily dictate to landowners what sorts of things
we do or do not need to put on their land).
Taylor leads off by proposing that she knows better than you do what sort of neighborhood you might like to live in, and that the city government ought to deal with this by forcing the developer to do what she wants rather than what they think their homebuyers will want.
JENNIFER TAYLOR: Let’s start specifically with some of the issues that I think Steve needs to address.
And of them is the absolute failure to work aggressively to truly diversify this economy. Two years ago, a group of us were down in front of Steve at City Council arguing about the Kyle Canyon development agreement, which would have allowed the construction of 16,000 homes on the eve of the foreclosure crisis. we said we really don’t need that kind of glut on the supply of homes because we were already seeing that there were problems. It would have also centered on a neighborhood casino, and I think it’s been pretty clear that when you lean solely on one industry that you end up in the type of quagmire that we are in now. We are suffering so much more than so many other cities who have taken proactive roles to diversify their economy….
DAVE BERNS: Back this up even more. When you talk about Kyle Canyon, and I hear you talking about homes out there and development… The 1,700 acre Kyle Canyon project would have put homes, shopping, offices, a casino, at the southwest corner of US95 and Kyle Canyon Rd, pretty much at the base of Mt Charleston. The developer, Focus Property Group, paid $510,000,000 for the land. In October of last year, Wachovia Bank foreclosed on the property after Focus Property defaulted on the loan. One of the criticisms that we heard of this project was that it was inappropiate. It didn’t belong at the base of Mt. Charleston.
JENNIFER TAYLOR: No it didn’t. It was just a basic, cookie-cutter repeat of projects that we had seen throughout the Valley, and really worse than that Dave, was that the contract was so poorly vetted and provided so little benefit to the citizens of Ward 6 compared to what Clark County and the city of Henderson had forced folks to do in Inspirada and Mountain’s Edge.
DAVE BERNS: Such as what?
JENNIFER TAYLOR: Such as open space. We had significantly less percentage of open space in that project; the density was significantly higher than those other projects; there was not as much public and service funding in the Kyle Canyon development agreement as there was for Inspirada and for Mountain’s Edge. And again, it centered on this whole concept of anchoring it around a neighborhood casino.
Of course, the real problem is not that the city government in Las Vegas has somehow failed to
force developers to do the right things; the problem is the fact that the city government of Las Vegas controls who does and who does not get access to unused land in the first place. There was no right way for such a
planned community development contract to be written, because there is no way to fake freed-market results through government monopoly on sales or politically-allocated ownership. So the solution is certainly not more aggressive government thuggery, but rather giving up entirely on the idea of half-billion-dollar politically-determined land sales for state-capitalistically
Of course, Steve Ross is often referred to as a defender of private property rights and a friend of developers. No doubt he will point out the destructive thuggery of Taylor’s position, right? Well, here he goes: check out this principled defense of private property. (Emphasis is mine.)
DAVE BERNS: Let’s start off… let’s back up a step and then we’ll come to the campaign contributions. First of all, your position position on Kyle Canyon. Spell it out.
STEVE ROSS: You know, it’s a great thing that we live in America, where if someone wants to do something with property, they’re allowed to apply to do whatever they want with their property.
—knpr’s State of Nevada (2009-03-31)
I’m not sure I heard that right.
You mean, they’re allowed to do whatever they want with their property, right?
STEVE ROSS: When somebody owns a piece of property they have the right to apply and do what they want with it. My role as a city councilman in the northwest is to ensure that development in that project is right for this city. Somebody owns the land at Kyle Canyon road and US95, they’re allowed to apply to do something with it. They want to build something, they’re allowed to do that. And that’s how our laws are.
—knpr’s State of Nevada (2009-03-31)
So that’s your freedom, fellow citizen — and such an important freedom that Steve Ross had to make sure he repeated it three times within a few minutes: that, when you want to put something up on your own damn land, you have the precious right to apply to the government to do something with it.
This may be the purest expression I have ever heard of the only kind of debate that’s allowed in city politics, here in Vegas and in countless other cities across the country, when it comes to private property and land use: the Smart Growth tools who figure that you can somehow force government-privileged monopolists to do the right thing, and, on the other hand, the Growth Machine tools who will stand up resolutely and defend, come hell or high water, your freedom to apply for permission to do whatever you want on your own land.
In case you were wondering, here’s an example of why Steve Ross, by the grace of Law Warden of 6 and Vaquero Supreme of the Vegas Valley, might decide that your plans to do something peacefully on your own property just isn’t right for this city of his: it might interfere with neighboring property owners’ wishes to make sure that land that doesn’t belong to them gets subdivided into
equestrian estates instead of affordable family homes.
DAVE BERNS: Can you think of a residential development where somebody owns some property — Focus Group, Olympic Group, whatever it may be — that you would vote
No on. As you say, if they own the land, they have the right to do with it as they may, as long as they follow our laws. Can you think of any project, Steve Ross, that you would reject, as a member of the city council?
STEVE ROSS: Oh, absolutely.
DAVE BERNS: A residential project?
STEVE ROSS: Yeah, let me give you a heads up here.
DAVE BERNS: Give us an example of why you would.
STEVE ROSS: Well, let me give you an example of actually something that did get approved, but not according to how the homebuilder want to build them.
DAVE BERNS: Please.
STEVE ROSS: There was a project out in the northwest, on the north end of Jones Blvd. The developer wanted to build a highly dense community in basic ranch land. I mean, there are 2 to 10 acre ranches out there in the northwest, and it didn’t fit. This neighborhood was going to be next to a proposed 300 acre equestrian facility that’s still proposed for the northwest, one day when we have the funds to do it. The developer, again, I had the developer go meet with those neighbors out there long before it came to city council. Interest enough—projects are vetted out in the neighborhoods long before they get to the council level. And projects don’t make it to the council level if the neighborhoods don’t like them. And that’s just the nature of how it works. This one particular neighborhood, they wanted half-acre equestrian estates on this property. And the developer bent over and said,
OK, I will do that. I will build half-acre equestrian estates, because it’s in a rural neighborhood; we want to maintain the rural nature of this area, and that’s what they did. And not because of me, but because of the neighborhood.
—knpr’s State of Nevada (2009-03-31)
When I tell people that I don’t see the use of lobbying or electoral politics as a means to social change, the first response that I get is typically some kind of complaint that I’m out of touch with the real world; that if I want to make a practical change, I have to jump in and try to intervene in the power-games of the existing political aparat. This kind of complaint is the worst sort of nonsense — the kind of dogmatic
practicality that you constantly get from people who are unwilling to actually think about what gets the goods, rather than what the tiny minority of professional politicians and media professionals have decided to dignify as proper political etiquette. In the real world, the debate is perpetually, structurally locked into a very limited range of positions, oriented around two poles that are themselves fixed by the platforms of the two established political parties, and if you want to try proposing anything outside of that range of politically-acceptable debate — like, say, a genuine notion of personal freedom, or a principled opposition to government planning and privateering corporate
development scams — you will quickly find that such arguments find no purchase, and no interest within any of the political parties. The message won’t fit through the channels that electoral politics makes available. If you want to advance the ideas, you are going to have to do so through other means, that aren’t filtered by the conventional idiocies, or constrained by the structural barriers, of electoral politics, because as long as you’re subject to those filters and that structure, you’re not going to get much out other than a debate like this, between the virtue of force and the importance of your God-given right to apply to the government to do whatever you want on your own property, as long as the neighbors don’t want equestrian estates, instead.
Good night, and good luck.