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The Great Hangar Debate of 2023

For the past month, more or less, I have found myself returning more often than usual to the tome that most shaped and informed the way I look at government and politics.

No, it’s not any of the standards for an Old Dude who is substantially right of center in terms of size and scope of government (no such thing as a government that is too small, thank you very much) and a screaming leftie on most social issues. Actually that’s not quite accurate anymore. I’m more of what would have been a screaming leftie circa 1995. I don’t actually even recognize what the “social issue” Left has become in the past 20 years. Anyway…

So the book is not “On Liberty” or “Atlas Shrugged” or “The Art of War” although I have read all of those and each had an impact. It’s nothing by Buckley or Buchanan or Bill Kristol. I like my political writing with a big dose of humor so it’s not a total surprise that I am a huge fan of the late, great P.J. O’Rourke and that influential volume for me is the 1991 book, “Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire United States Government.”

I find myself going back over and over again to the last section of the book which is about what we have come to refer to as “special interest groups.”

We usually think of ‘special interests’ as being something out of a Thomas Nast cartoon—big men with cigars conspiring over a biscuit trust. But in fact, a special interest is any person or group that wants to be treated differently from the rest of us by the government. Every charity is a special interest. So is the League of Women Voters, the Episcopalian church, Consumer Reports magazine and anybody who threatens to write to his congressman.

So, here’s the deal. I was kind of afraid that I might have become a “special interest.”

You see, I live on what used to be the far southwest edge of the Vegas Valley. In the almost 20 years we’ve been there, we’ve gone from fewer than a dozen homes west of us to closing in on 1,000. It sucks and we hate it. But the empty lot just north of our house has stayed empty. It’s been owned by the same guy since the late 1950s, when Blue Diamond was still just a dirt road.

His kids have decided to develop it and make some dough, which is fine. But they want a bunch of variances from the current zoning so they can put a gas station and fast food joint and convenience store and maybe a car wash less than 20 feet from my house. Current zoning calls for 10 times that distance and we successfully fought off one development attempt five years ago. The developer at that time met with the neighbors and made adjustments to the plan that we could all live with and then disappeared. Now there is a new developer (same land owner) who has thrown all of that out and wants to put a SpeedeeMart and gas station there. We’re fighting again.

As my wife and I work to organize our neighbors, I keep coming back to the same passage in that book and wondering if I might be part of the problem.

The whole idea of our government is this: If enough people get together and act in concert, they can take something and not pay for it.

Was that us?

I found myself thinking about our developer fight and comparing it to the story I’ve spent a good deal of time covering lately in which a group of pilots with a good lawyer are pushing the city to forego contracted property rights that would result in much more revenue and instead keep the original lease terms (with some minor adjustment to the rate) in place for an additional 10 years at minimum and potentially 20 years.

Keep in mind that the original lease terms had a purpose. By granting cheap land leases, the airport sponsor (i.e., the city) was able to hook in developers to pay to build hangars with the assurance that their lease rate for up to 30 years would be low enough for them to recover their costs and make a substantial profit and at the end of the lease term, the hangars would become property of the city. The city would then be able to offer new leases for the buildings at that point for substantially more money.

When trying to understand this issue early on, I sent queries to entities who might have some experience with this issue. One of them got back to me in just the past couple of days.

T.J. Chen is the president of the Southwest Chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives —an entity that the BC airport is itself associated with. He said:

“The urgent objective of the developer is to get the property under lease and initiate the project with the thought that ‘…we (the lessee) can deal with reversion later…let’s just get the lease agreement completed and get the project going and we can worry about reversion down the road….’ When ‘down the road’ comes, the original lessee may not even be around anymore and the heirs or new owners who had the lease assigned to them, are responsible to follow the terms and conditions of the lease agreement.

“As the term of the lease is set to expire, the issue of reversion now becomes a factor. Additionally, the oversight body — city council or airport board — that approved the original lease agreement is not around either. The current owner who now holds the ground lease is in the position of turning over the hangar to the airport sponsor when the agreement expires. The situation becomes political with the lease holder pleading with the governing body not to take their property. The appointed or elected officials are less willing to enforce the lease agreement established decades earlier because of vocal tenants. It is in the airport’s best interest, both internally and externally, to transition the property from a ground lease to a facility lease as the revenue is much higher. “

Or, to make that a lot shorter, and paraphrasing the city manager when he presented pros and cons of new building leases versus extended land leases to the council, the single advantage of extended ground leases is keeping the current tenants happy.

Got that?

It’s a tough situation for a reporter. The bottom line is that reporting on a subject on the news pages and then opining on the same subject on the editorial pages is fraught with peril and opens the reporter up to accusations of bias. So, without offering an opinion, I’ll just make the obvious comparison and pose a question.

So, back to the book and my being worried about being part of the problem. In this case, I don’t think I crossed the line. All we are doing is insisting that development is done under existing zoning requirements. In other words, as we say all the time, developers need to “build what you bought” and not expect the rules to be changed later.

How is that different from the concerned residents of Boulder City who are insisting that everyone stick to the original terms of the contracts for those hangars?

Or, to quote T.J. Chen again, “Private investment in aviation facilities is no justification for controlling the leasehold in perpetuity.”

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