Big Bad Developer

George Johnson is quickly becoming the most notorious developer in Arizona

Indeed, in the last year, Johnson has arguably become the new king of Arizona's bad-boy developers.

Johnson, a stout, leather-skinned, silver-haired man in his 60s, wears dark sunglasses as he stands on the tarmac awaiting the Army tour. His detractors occasionally glance back at him, some rolling their eyes, others keeping the stoic faces of diplomacy.

Johnson remains expressionless, a model of civility.

Environmentalists doubt this grading at La Osa was for farming  or ranching as Johnson insists.
courtesy of Center for Biological Diversity
Environmentalists doubt this grading at La Osa was for farming or ranching as Johnson insists.
A page from the deed for George Johnson's gift to the daughter of a Pinal County official.
A page from the deed for George Johnson's gift to the daughter of a Pinal County official.

But inside, he is boiling.

"I'm not buying the Army's numbers, I'm not buying any of this stuff," Johnson says as he waits for the Black Hawks to return. "I don't know why people are targeting me, but they are."

As his ire builds, Johnson catches himself. He changes the subject and removes his sunglasses. His cold stare turns soft.

"You know, I'm out there with my guys taking care of this goat problem," he says. "And that's not something that's pleasant. I don't like killing animals. Hell, I can't even shoot a pheasant anymore. They're just so beautiful."

It's a strangely delicate moment for a man known for his bulldog demeanor and tactics.

As Johnson finishes, a barely audible comment wafts from the group of scientists standing nearby.

"What a crock of . . . "

George Johnson has been developing properties in Arizona, California, Utah and Texas for 30 years.

But land development has been in his blood much longer than that. His family ran the H.G. Johnson Produce Company, which, from 1949 to 1964, oversaw a massive farming and produce-shipping operation from 12,000 acres near Guaymas, Mexico.

In 1952, the Johnson company first ventured into home building, developing three subdivisions in Oklahoma City from 1952 to 1955.

Through the 1960s, the Johnson company was involved in building more than 150 commercial buildings and strip malls throughout Arizona, California and Texas.

In the 1970s, George Johnson, increasingly on his own, returned to residential building, constructing more than 6,000 homes and apartment buildings throughout Mesa, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe and Tucson.

After developing a slew of commercial properties and luxury golf resorts through the 1980s and 1990s, Johnson began setting his sights on much larger properties as well as lands in much more environmentally sensitive parts of Arizona. He also became interested in controlling services to these areas. He now owns a company called Johnson Utilities, which provides water and wastewater services to parts of the southeast Valley, as well as Johnson Cable & Communications and Central Arizona Communications, both of which serve the southeast Valley.

He began building his empire in the Valley in the mid-1990s with the purchase of massive chunks of land in the far southeast that would eventually become Johnson Ranch.

One of those chunks was 136 acres of state land. According to state land trust records obtained by New Times, Johnson was the only bidder on that land in 1996. He got the land for the minimum bidding price of $310,000.

That sale and Johnson's promise to build a beautiful city on the land was the start of a cozy relationship between Johnson and Pinal County officials, a relationship that has given rise to myriad accusations of bribery, fraud, broken promises, environmental destruction and other abuses of the public trust.

Most allegations around the 3,200-acre development involve water. Whether he got it legally. Whether he got enough of it. Whether it's any good. Whether he is capable of delivering it to people. Whether he can handle the wastewater generated by such a large development.

In the late 1990s, Johnson needed to prove to the state Department of Water Resources that he had enough water for Johnson Ranch. So he went on a buying spree of water wells in the area.

Five of the wells he needed were owned by the residents of a rural community called Sun Valley Farms V.

In May of 1998, Larry Quick, president of the Sun Valley homeowners association, signed a contract to sell the wells to Johnson for $30,000.

Quick made the move against advice from the association's attorneys, who suggested the wells should be assessed and sold using a bidding process.

Also, according to court documents filed in 1999, the association's board was never given a chance to review the contract.

The day after he signed the contract, Quick stepped down as president of the association.

Very odd behavior, residents thought. But the move made sense to them later -- after they'd dug into Quick's dealings with Johnson.

It turned out that three days before Quick signed the contract, Johnson had given Quick a $125,000 loan.

Quick said he didn't report the loan because he considered it personal business. Johnson said he had heard Quick needed a loan and he was just helping the guy out.

Quick later was hired as the planning director for the City of Florence, which is a few miles southeast of Johnson Ranch in Pinal County. He still serves in that position.

Quick did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

The wells Quick sold for $30,000 were later assessed at $500,000.

Once he had wells, Johnson set out to consolidate control of the unconnected confederation of water systems in the area. If he could gain control of all aspects of supplying water to the area, he stood to make tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars.

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