I-Team: Elko County's strict building codes raise questions

LAS VEGAS - A California businesswoman who invested $25 million in creating a tourist attraction in rural Nevada says she probably wouldn't make the same decision again.

The founder of the Mustang Monument wild horse sanctuary in Elko County says that further investment would be a waste of money because she's been blocked from opening, not only by the Bureau of Land Management, but also by Elko County officials who say they don't want to support anything that keeps wild horses on the range.

Madeleine Pickens is rich, blonde, female, and is from California, and those are four strikes against her in some circles.

But the fact that she wants to create a sanctuary for wild horses in a county known for its ranching industry is what probably doomed her Mustang Monument project. Ranchers are not fans of the BLM, but animosity toward wild horses is the one issue on which both of those camps can agree.

At travel expos around the world, including Europe and China, Madeleine Pickens pitched her Mustang Monument eco-sanctuary as something different for high-end tourists, a chance to interact with wild horses in the same region where the first horses on earth were born.

Travel agents loved it, state tourism promoted it, and the visitors who stayed last year were overwhelmed. It looked like 2016 would be a huge success, but it never happened.

"We had to reimburse them. We had to cancel reservations. It's terrible," she said.

Pickens knew she would have trouble with the BLM if she tried to put mustangs on her public acreage, but she continued to pour millions of dollars into fixing up her 20,000 deed acres with new water systems, massive pivots to grow alfalfa, first class guest accommodations and a hangar filled with expensive SUV's and customized coaches.

Local contractors were hired to do the work, local ranch hands to care for the mustangs. The monument represented jobs, tourists, and tax dollars but from the beginning Elko County said no thanks.

County commissioners, several of them cattle ranchers, voted against the sanctuary in 2010. In the minutes of public meetings, commissioners said they opposed any use of water rights for wild horses. Another said he didn't have enough information to make a decision, but still didn't like Pickens' idea. Elko is cattle country, and ranchers see wild horses as a threat.

"You take the hatred of horses aside, there is no good reason why anybody should be opposed to this here, or anywhere else," said Clay Nannini, Elko realtor.

Since the county commission's vote, Pickens encountered obstacles at every turn. Building inspectors imposed and enforced standards unknown in Elko County and delays became commonplace.

"They don't discriminate. They all apply the same standard, which is, it's Madeleine Pickens. She can wait a little while. She's from California, so she can wait," said Jerry Reynoldson, wild horse advocate.

"Every time the building department comes by, they now want me to fix another building for another $750,000. They don't like this. They don't like that," Pickens said.

Example, an old house converted into a dining hall and kitchen. It took two years to get the permits and cost a million dollars.

She intended to build a kitchen that could handle up to 45 diners maximum to match the ranch's capacity, but instead had to construct a stainless steel mega-kitchen that looks like it belongs at the MGM Grand.

"You could see this kitchen in a restaurant in San Francisco that served 500 people, and you know it's totally out of place here. She will never use what's there but they just made her build it because they could," Reynoldson said.

Kitchen mops had to have their own walled-off section, and it required its own permit. A walk-in refrigerator was nearly approved, until an inspector wanted to see evidence it was earthquake-proof.

"So I asked the engineers, the builder and he said, 'We've never been asked for this kind of information on a walk-in refrigerator,'" Pickens said.

Pickens spent a million dollars buying what she calls safari tents, tee-pees, to provide visitors with an upscale western experience. The county required that each tent sit atop a slab of concrete and rebar 7 feet thick, then added, the tents would need their own sprinkler systems in case of fire.

"I said, I'm out of this. I rolled up the tents. They're all stored and I will probably sell them in another state or somewhere else," she said. "They've all had a wink and a nod. In other words, give her a hard time. That's hard to take. You come in, you're sincere, but after a while, you don't want to continue to throw money away."

Not only has the BLM prohibited Pickens from putting mustangs on her public acres, she couldn't open her own property to visitors if she wanted to. That massive mega kitchen still doesn't have a permit to operate commercially, and she was told she can't even use it for family dining. The airplane hangar of custom SUV's will likely be sold off, without the vehicles ever being used at all.

The I-Team called Elko County for a comment and will let you know what they have to say when they call back.

 


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