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Raceway debate turns into costly debacle

In the end it was Lorinda Wichman, the sole Nye County Commissioner from the north — a member of the audience said under public comment she shouldn’t even be voting on Pahrump matters — who cast the pivotal vote on whether the county should take possession of a $4.5 million water and sewer plant to serve Spring Mountain Motor Sports and use the effluent to water the Pahrump fairgrounds project.

Wichman joined commissioners Frank Carbone and Donna Cox in voting no. That means raceway owners will construct a water and sewer plant to serve a massive expansion project — an 80-home subdivision, recreational vehicle park, commercial strip with sit-down and fast food restaurants, a 231-room hotel, multiplex cinema and an artificial lake — and donate it to for-profit Utilities Inc. of Central Nevada. Carbone made the motion to let the privately-owned utility take ownership of the water and sewer plant.

“That leaves the kid up here making a decision for your community,” Wichman said. “The only part I have a problem with is this is the county taking on another utility without any idea of a budget.”

Russ Meads, owner of Double M Construction, the builder of the project, told commissioners giving it to UICN would be more time consuming, requiring the company to obtain a Utility Environmental Protection Agency (UEPA) permit, a six- to nine-month process, plus another six months for an annexation agreement, annexing the old part of the racetrack property into the UICN service territory. But afterwards, Meads said the Public Utilities Commission may be able to process both those applications at once.

“This really sets forever what our utility structure will be in the future,” Meads told a group of residents gathered outside commission chambers.

Pahrump Town Manager Susan Holecheck, appearing visibly upset, said the rejection will doom the Pahrump Fairgrounds project, her top priority since taking the position. Nye County will take over town government functions in a little over seven months.

Commissioner Dan Schinhofen was visibly shaken by the vote against accepting what amounted to a $4.5 million gift.

“It’s going to save us $4 million in the future. Why we wouldn’t approve this I don’t know,” he said. “The next time you ask me to help a developer I don’t know what to do for you. This is a great project for us.”

Mike Meacher, vice-president and chief operating officer of Front Sight Firearms Training Institute, said he watched with great interest what the other major recreational provider was doing.

“It’s a wonderful project and I would implore you to figure out the most efficient way for this to occur,” Meacher said. “There’s some territorial issues involving the utility, but the issue for the county and the town should be pretty straightforward. You have a developer willing to spend tens, maybe millions of dollars in a community, they’re going to take very little out.”

“The town of Pahrump and Nye County have been trying to do economic development in the 17 years I’ve been here. I’ve always said get government out of the way and let the rules and regulations get easier,” Commissioner Butch Borasky said. “You guys step up and want to pop something in our lap. We’d be fools not to take it. Thank you Spring Mountain and Front Sight for your investments for bringing people to our community with world class attractions.”

But Commissioner Donna Cox said she didn’t want children playing on soccer fields irrigated by effluent. She pointed out the 427-acre property near Spring Mountain Motor Sports was given to the town of Pahrump for a fairgrounds, not for soccer fields.

“I don’t believe we have the expertise to be able to maintain a sewer plant of that large amount. On the fairgrounds we could get away with a large septic tank,” Cox said. She added the county already used a $198,000 grant to sink a well on the property. “The cost of operating is very scary. I don’t want to create more liability than we already have. I don’t want to get into a lawsuit with a utility.”

Schinhofen countered Cox’s concerns.

“I did talk to our public works director. He tells me we already have the expertise to run it. We might have to hire two more people,” Schinhofen replied. “The effluent on the property has to meet NDEP (Nevada Division of Environmental Protection) standards and it’s mixed with clean water so it’s safe.”

UICN President Wendy Barnett earlier said while her company wants to be part of the solution for the fairgrounds, she threatened if Nye County provided utility service in their service territory it could create legal challenges. She said the project “is nothing but a win for our ratepayers.”

“This does appear to be an attempt to circumvent the Open Meetings Law,” Barnett said, drawing a visual reaction from Schinhofen. She said the cost to provide water and sewer service should be considered prior to the meeting. “This is a particular concern given the county’s intent to service the racetrack at an impact to ratepayers.”

Barnett said UICN is a private utility under PUC oversight. She said having another utility provider exacerbates the problem over the over-appropriation of water rights in the Pahrump by creating a “service island” and providing service in their service territory, when the county has no legal authority to do so, adding State Engineer Jason King is opposed to the idea.

Nye County Interim Community Development Director Darrell Lacy said a utility agreement could be decided at a later time, commissioners Monday could just consider the development agreement. But Meads said they had to know right away where engineers should begin planning the improvements, on racetrack property or the fairgrounds.

At one point, District Attorney Brian Kunzi snapped back at Barnett, “they spent $1.8 million in litigation fees in litigating the bankruptcy in the Willow Creek Golf Course case and now they’re asking ratepayers to pay.” Barnett, from the audience, told Kunzi he needed to get his facts straight.

“Nye County controlling a utility will not have any impact on UICN’s operation, not one bit. Somehow saying that is a detriment to their ratepayers is just not true,” Kunzi said. “There is a specific Supreme Court decision that indicates the county can in fact operate and provide water service to an existing customer of a utility.”

Holecheck said the majority of the Pahrump Town Board supported the project, with the potential for recreational and commercial opportunities. Specifically, she spoke of the ability to get the fairground project started, which has languished since the land was given to the town in a congressional act in 1997.

“I doubt very seriously if the Town of Pahrump would ever have the funds to construct a water treatment plant and, number two, I doubt very seriously we would ever have the money to buy effluent to use on the fields,” Holecheck said.

Holecheck said effluent is used to water recreation fields in many places and offered to provide that information to cynics like Cox. She said at the town board meeting people incorrectly assumed the project would require their wells to be capped.

“This is an amazing opportunity, amazing. Do you realize what it costs to do this? Our fairgrounds would never get done and the opportunity for us to get development in that area,” construction company co-owner Debra Strickland said. A sea of hands went up when she asked who supported the project.

Meads said in three discussions with UICN the first time they were told the racetrack wasn’t in their service territory. The second time UICN wanted $19 million to extend only the sewer lines. The last time they wanted to use the Mountain Falls sewer plant, but that would require tearing up Mountain Falls Parkway, a very expensive project.

Michael Von Quilich, who said he owned three high-tech businesses in Pahrump and a national championship racecar team, said he wouldn’t have come to Pahrump if it wasn’t for Spring Mountain raceway. But he said drivers seriously lack hotel rooms, adding tracks at Daytona Beach and Sebring, Fla. are right in the middle of town.

“This racetrack is a phenomenal benefit and it is a great place for the people of Pahrump. However I do believe we have a problem with water and I do believe we have a problem with building a lake,” county commission candidate Dave Caudle said, who resigned from the Pahrump groundwater committee over it.

Meads used an overhead projector to outline the benefits of Spring Mountain Motor Sports to the community: a club with 279 active members with room to expand to 600 members; a Corvette and now a Cadillac driving academy, with 40 programs per week expected to increase to 100 programs; filling an average of 2,000 room nights, expected to increase to 5,200 room nights; impact fees totaling $425,000; another 40 permanent jobs and 250 construction jobs.

Lacy referred to measures Spring Mountain owners will take to reduce water consumption, Meads outlined steps like replacing sod with artificial turf, recapturing skid pad water and retention ponds that captured 24 million gallons of flood water in three hours during a major storm last July.

The controversial artificial lake would require 57.4 acre feet of water rights to fill, an area 250,000 square feet, 10 feet deep. The evaporation rate would be 43 acre feet annually, he said, but it would be more than offset by the conservation water rights credits and water rights relinquished to the state engineer’s office for the homes, that would only be occupied by drivers on weekends.

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