Ranch Handout

Quit fiddling around with Spur Cross Ranch's owners, and condemn the land

Spur Cross Ranch has long been a jewel in Maricopa County's environmental crown, but it's fast becoming a political hot potato.

U.S. Senator John McCain first fondled the gem. He was followed by Governor Jane Dee Hull and Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley. All three tried desperately to find a way to preserve the 2,150-acre ranch at the edge of the Tonto National Forest--home to endangered species, Native American artifacts and one of the last year-round creeks in these parts.

The politician who saves the mountainous spread from development and turns it into a preserve will score major points with voters.

To that end, the pols have been pussyfooting around the property owners--one of whom happens to be the behemothic Ohio-based Great American Life Insurance--trying to make them happy, first with a lucrative land trade offer and now with $15 million scraped together out of state and county coffers.

The owners still aren't happy. They say the state's appraisal on the ranch is too low. Others say the appraisal is actually way too high. The latest deal is at an impasse; the state can't, by law, pay more than $15 million for the land.

I can't add much to the debate over the land's worth, but I know one thing: It's time to end the years of wheel-spinning and take the option that's been available all along.

Condemn Spur Cross Ranch.

Oh dear. I used a dirty word.

Condemnation is not a pretty thing. It means the government comes in and says, "You have no choice. You must give up your property. We will compensate you fairly, but get the hell out!" If the parties can't agree on a price, the matter is decided by the courts.

It may not be pretty, but it happens. Hundreds of acres in Phoenix were condemned to create the Phoenix Mountain Preserves. The state condemns land all the time to build freeways.

And there's my favorite: Remember Beatrice Villareal, the 87-year-old woman who was forced from her meager lifelong home because Jerry Colangelo and Co. decided they wanted to put a parking garage in her living room? Beatrice and her kin protested, to no avail. Her home was condemned, and she died not long after being displaced.

The owners of Spur Cross don't even live on their property. Great American's execs live in tony Cincinnati suburbs. The land's minority owner, Herbert Dreiseszun, hangs out in the Arizona Biltmore neighborhood.

If our state and county leaders are really serious about preserving Spur Cross Ranch, and settling upon fair compensation for the owners, they will condemn the land.

They've exhausted just about every other option.

Some history: In the fall of 1997, a local developer named John Lang had cut a deal with the property owners to put a golf course and custom homes on the land. The Town of Cave Creek, which abuts Spur Cross, went nuts, and voted to annex the land and tie up any development. Those legal battles continue today.

Into the fray stepped John McCain, the self-styled maverick and presidential wanna-be who had rehabilitated his political reputation with campaign finance reform but still had some work to do to bolster his environmental record. The senator vowed to save Spur Cross Ranch.

For the next year or so, developers and conservationists and officials from all levels of government fought over a land trade championed by McCain. I won't bore you with the details; suffice to say the proposal wouldn't have saved Spur Cross without pissing off just about everyone involved and putting other precious land in jeopardy. It was a mess, and McCain finally extricated himself and skulked back to Washington.

In the meantime, the conservationists had been beating the bushes, trying to find a private group like the Nature Conservancy to purchase the land and preserve it. No go.

Smelling a political opportunity, Hull and Stapley stepped in and began negotiations with the Legislature and county supervisors to round up the dough to buy the land outright.

Between the state and Maricopa County, the officials came up with $15 million, and passed the whole deal as a state law. Coincidentally (don't you love how these things work?), the appraiser chosen and paid by the state appraised the land at $15 million.

Done deal, right?

Wrong. Dreiseszun has been grumbling about the price, and Great American has joined in, too. Dreiseszun hired an analyst to review the state's appraisal, and guess what? The analyst says the appraisal is "woefully inadequate."

Great American and Dreiseszun should take the $15 million and run. They'd be getting a smoking deal. In fact, the $15 million price could be called a taxpayer rip-off.

According to public records reviewed by the state's appraiser, the owners of Spur Cross Ranch listed the land for sale at about $12.75 million in 1995.

The state's appraiser did a thorough review of relatively comparable land prices in the area, and, according to that roundup, I'd put the value of Spur Cross Ranch at closer to $4,000 an acre than the $7,000 per acre the state has offered to pay.

Dreiseszun's big contention is that he and Great American could build homes on the land--or even a small part of the land, given the rocky, hilly nature of much of it--and make a lot more than $15 million.

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