Big Bad Developer

George Johnson is quickly becoming the most notorious developer in Arizona

The scene led to more questions. Exactly what was Johnson doing along this river he'd promised to protect?

That question had actually been answered four months earlier when Clair Hale, the water commissioner for the region, toured the property himself.

In early 2002, Hale investigated accusations that Johnson was diverting water from the river to his property, according to documents in state Superior Court.

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.

In February 2002, Hale observed that Johnson had indeed built dams along the river, barriers that were diverting water to a formerly dry pond on the property.

Hale told Johnson to stop the diversion until Johnson proved he held the rights to that water.

Court records show Johnson had no right to the water.

In March, Hale revisited the property. Johnson had failed to prove he had rights to any Little Colorado water, yet Hale found water was still being diverted into the pond in an amount he estimated at 10 acre-feet, according to court documents. (An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover one acre to a depth of one foot.)

On March 20, Johnson was served with a cease-and-desist order directing that the water diversion stop and that the dams be destroyed immediately.

On March 22, Hale revisited the property to see if Johnson had complied with the court orders. But Mick Finch, Johnson's manager at the site, told Hale that George Johnson had ordered him to block Hale from accessing the river, the pond and the diversion dam.

Hale, in his 90s, is a storied figure in Apache County and, as the county's water commissioner, holds the sacrosanct position of protecting the county's limited water resources from abuse and theft. He also has the legal right to visit any stretch of the river any time he chooses.

So Johnson's refusal to grant Clair Hale access to the Little Colorado River was nothing short of scandalous in the Apache County ranching community.

Still, even from his blocked vantage point, Hale could clearly see that Johnson had not stopped pumping water from the Little Colorado.

On April 8, under the threat of a contempt-of-court order, Johnson finally agreed to breach the three dams he had built on the river and drain the pond.

But residents feared the town council of Eagar might still support Johnson's project, despite all the problems he'd caused along the river. They were particularly concerned because the town's vice mayor, Jack McCall, worked for Johnson.

Several conservation groups jumped in to help Johnson's neighbors. According to one rancher involved in trying to stop the development, more than 3,000 letters came in from around the country asking local and state officials to block Johnson' s project.

Local landowners and residents also hired an attorney and a private investigator who ultimately wrote an eight-page report to the Eagar Town Council documenting myriad reasons Johnson's development should not be allowed to move forward.

For Johnson's development plan to succeed, he needed to get the State Land Department to approve a change from agricultural to commercial status.

Alternatively, Johnson needed the Land Department to approve an annexation of the 1,200 acres by the town of Eagar. The Eagar Town Council had forwarded to the Land Department a request from Johnson for the annexation.

"You've got to understand our situation here," council member Vincente Ordoñez tells New Times. "We're a very poor community. We weren't necessarily supporting Johnson. We had a lot of concerns about what he was doing on the river. But we did want to see what the Land Department had to say about such a move."

Citing public outcry and the lack of specific information regarding Johnson's development, the state Land Department denied those requests last spring.

"To my knowledge, that plan is effectively dead," Ordoñez says. "All Johnson actually owns is 38 acres out there. The development is not going to happen."

Johnson did not take well to people standing in the way of his plans.

After neighbors refused to sell their land to him, Johnson bulldozed two deep trenches in an access road used by several nearby ranches. Sheriff's deputies came out and ordered Johnson to reopen the road.

Then, in a move that still baffles local residents, he placed several cages with farm animals inside along the road.

One of the animals was a pig. A sign on the pig's cage said: "Please Do Not Feed Wink."

Wink is the first name of one of the neighbors who didn't want to sell out to Johnson.

Johnson also put two burros, or jackasses, in pens along the road with signs saying: "Don't Feed Steve and Andrew."

Locals say the sign referred to the two Apache County sheriff's deputies who often were called to Johnson's property to settle disputes and present court orders.

"Yes, I saw all of those," says Councilman Ordoñez, who works for the U.S. Forest Service. "When I saw those things, I was just blown away. It was pretty juvenile. And you had to start asking yourself if this guy was actually playing with a full deck."

That's the same question people near Marana asked when Johnson brought his 5,000 goats to the border of the Ironwood Forest National Monument.

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