Big Bad Developer

George Johnson is quickly becoming the most notorious developer in Arizona

Again, Johnson's staff told state officials that the problems are simply more paperwork errors and minor oversights. They promise to fix everything.

But Steve Owens, the director of DEQ, isn't buying Johnson's litany of simple mistakes.

"Look, this is a large, sophisticated outfit," Owens tells New Times. "They ought to know better and they probably do know better what is expected of them under the state environmental laws.

George Johnson's three troublesome developments.
George Johnson's three troublesome developments.
Johnson has since moved his goat herd away from the bighorn  sheep haven northwest of Tucson.
courtesy of Center for Biological Diversity
Johnson has since moved his goat herd away from the bighorn sheep haven northwest of Tucson.

"They've either chosen not to know, or to ignore those requirements. Either way, the activity is unacceptable."

When it comes to La Osa Ranch, the development near the air base, Brian Tompsett, Johnson's chief assistant and a vice president of Johnson International, insists that much of the damage in question was done not by La Osa Ranch but by the neighboring King Ranch.

"They accused us of something that the King Ranch did," says Tompsett, who accompanied his boss on the recent tour of the base.

The ownership issue is the basis of Johnson International's scathing nine-page response to DEQ's allegations.

Which leads to the obvious question: "Who owns the King Ranch?"

"I'm not sure," Tompsett tells New Times.

But five minutes later, when the same question is posed several times to George Johnson himself, he concedes: "It's owned by the Johnson Family Trust."

In fact, according to state Corporation Commission records, it's owned by the George H. Johnson Revocable Trust.

Which is just one of at least 20 George Johnson-controlled entities.

Still, Johnson insists, King Ranch and La Osa Ranch "are two separate entities with two separate roles. One is for ranching, one is for development. What one does has nothing to do with what the other one does."

Johnson blames a paperwork mistake for the DEQ violations that resulted in the record $80,000 fine.

"We didn't turn in all the right documents," he says. "It was the error of an engineer."

"You know, we didn't even pay that," Johnson adds. "The builders out there paid it for us."

That's a fact that has angered Arizona Corporation Commissioners.

"They didn't comply to begin with, and they don't have to pay the fine themselves," Commissioner Bill Mundell said in Corporation Commission hearings. "What is the downside for Johnson Utilities for noncompliance?"

What's even more irritating about Johnson's activities and violations in Pinal County, Steve Owens says, is that they mirror almost exactly Johnson's misdeeds up in Apache County, where Johnson had proposed a large resort and RV park along the endangered Little Colorado River in the heart of the White Mountains.

"It's all the same stuff," Owens says. ADEQ is still investigating violations on Johnson's property there.

But Johnson's dealings in Apache County do appear to be different in two aspects.

There, he walked into an already established ranching community that doesn't take too well to outsiders with grand schemes.

And up there, things got personal.

Originally, George Johnson called his planned resort on the Little Colorado River "The Four Seasons at South Fork."

The plan called for 500 recreational vehicle spaces and 200 vacation cabins in the first phase of development.

In 2002, the project's name was changed to The Villages at Valle Redondo. With the name change, Johnson's company offered local city and county officials numerous promises that his development would blend seamlessly with the surrounding environment.

In an October 2002 press release titled "WHAT WE WON'T DO," the company outlined its environmentally friendly plans:

"Where the development does include the Little Colorado River, Valle Redondo will seek to create a permanent conservation easement, where applicable, along the public areas of the Little Colorado. This area would be held in a continued public trust for the future benefit of all. There are numerous governmental agencies that will constantly inspect and monitor the development plans to ensure no such riparian destruction could ever take place. It's their job."

The press release was particularly humorous to area residents because of what Johnson had already done to the Little Colorado River.

One day in August of 2001, a DEQ inspector stationed in the White Mountains region happened to notice that the Little Colorado River, usually clear and pristine, was unusually dark and full of debris.

The inspector followed the debris in the small river up to its source, which the inspector determined to be drilling and clearing going on along the river on Johnson's property.

"Our guy just saw all kinds of debris in the watershed and tracked it upstream to the property," Owens says. "It was as simple as that."

Subsequent inspections led to Notices of Violations for four violations from DEQ for "point source discharge to a navigable water without an aquifer protection permit," changing "the color of surface water from natural background levels of color," "violation of a surface water quality standard" and "unlawful open burning."

At that time, the DEQ inspector and an Apache County health inspector observed drilling fluids flowing into the river over a series of berms apparently built to contain the fluids. The river was clearly darkened by the drilling oils. Also, the inspectors caught workers burning piles of willow branches without a permit. The branches had been cleared from the riparian area.

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