Mark Waite / Pahrump Valley Times - Victor and Annette Fuentes stand in front of a flooded approach to their church camp in this 2007 file photo.
Mark Waite / Pahrump Valley Times - Animals survey flooding at the Patch of Heaven church camp at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.
Mark Waite / Pahrump Valley Times - County Commissioner Donna Cox, who marshaled a resolution supporting the Patch of Heaven case, at left, talks with Victor Fuentes, former Assemblyman Ed Goedhart, Annette Fuentes and Joe Becker, chief legal officer for the Nevada Policy Research Institute’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation.
County commissioners Tuesday passed a resolution asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore a stream flow to the Patch of Heaven Church Camp in Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge and compensate the owners for flood damage.
Victor and Annette Fuentes bought 40 acres of private property at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in 2007 from Ron Metheny for $500,000 and turned it into a church camp. They spent $500,000 to build a dining room, three cabins and bunkhouses. The property had a babbling brook running through it, creating an oasis in the desert.
Two years later, the fish and wildlife service outlined plans to reroute a channel running through their property to its original course, which would also help the endangered speckled dace. In December 2010, three and a half inches of rain damaged restoration projects and flooded the church camp.
The Nevada Policy Research Institute’s Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation filed suit against the fish and wildlife service in January 2012.
NPRI attorney Joe Becker said they sued for a federal taking of vested water rights, which is being heard in the Federal Court of Claims. They also filed suit for exercise of religion in U.S. district court and filed suit in state court against refuge manager Sharon McKelvey. That has been appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Becker said the NPRI already received depositions from county officials in support of their case, the resolution just puts the county on record the fish and wildlife service violated county regulations. The county serves as flood plain administrator. The suit already claims violations of the Federal Emergency Management Act.
“The county said you violated an ordinance to prevent flooding to residents of Nye County,” Becker said.
County officials went beyond just commenting on the project in the wording of the resolution. The county resolution notes the fish and wildlife service is just one of the federal entities that control 98 percent of land in the county.
“Nye County recognizes that this overwhelming percentage of federally controlled land contributes to an environment of federal overreach and abuse of private property rights and leads to the diminishment of due process and rights granted to Nye County’s residents under the United States Constitution, Bill of Rights and Nevada Constitution,” the resolution states.
It accuses the fish and wildlife service of engaging in a prolonged effort to expand land under its control at the refuge, through private land purchases and governmental land transfers in an attempt to expand its sphere of influence and expand the refuge boundaries. It said the environmental impact statement on the stream rerouting gave short shrift to the effects on Nye County residents and property owners living on the refuge.
The exercise of religion claim stems from the fact rerouting the steam affected the church camp’s ability to conduct baptisms, as well as causing meadows and trees to die. The county resolution states the fish and wildlife service didn’t obtain a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prior to the stream diversion and wetland destruction as required by the Clean Water Act.
“This blatant disregard for following statutorily required processes and permits led the refuge to construct an ill-conceived, unsupervised and inadequately reviewed change in stream channels and storm water flow paths,” the resolution states.
The flood occurred two weeks after refuge officials completed the stream flow diversions, overflowing the channel and causing water to flood through the center of the church camp, resulting in more than $85,000 in property damage.
“Whereas the property that the church camp owns has a vested surface water right and that the diversion of this stream has resulted in a taking of this water right by the federal government,” the resolution states.
Commissioner Lorinda Wichman thanked Commissioner Donna Cox for marshaling the resolution through the county for approval.