Land Doesn't Always Pay

In Arizona, everyone seems to have a dream about buying land and making a fortune. Some do. Most don't.

Timing is an important element. Political influence is even more important.

Personally, I've always found tales about land deals tedious. So I will keep this to a minimum. Rest assured, however, that in order to put it together, I've gone through a mountain of documents and hours of interviews and even a fascinating video of the Phoenix City Council in action.

Back in 1949, Nancy Steinmetz, then 38, lived in a trailer on North 32nd Street. She and her husband bought a five-acre piece of homestead land on what is now the Phoenix Mountain Preserve on Seventh Street for $100 down.

Mrs. Steinmetz became a widow and supported her two children by working at the concession stands at the dog tracks. She kept up her payments on the land and dreamed of someday being able to sell part of it and build a small home on the rest.

But the City of Phoenix does not make its rules to accommodate the dreams of little people.

The city wanted to acquire the land for the mountain preserve. They established a rule that if Mrs. Steinmetz, who was earning minimum wage, wanted to build, she would have to use the entire five acres.

She couldn't afford that. So Mrs. Steinmetz was forced to sell to a Chicago real estate investor for $10,000. He planned to build on the entire site. When the real estate commission was deducted, Mrs. Steinmetz got $8,000 after owning the land for a dozen years. Even this was a much higher price than the city had offered her.

Now 78 years old, Mrs. Steinmetz is on a respirator and lives in a retirement area south of Tucson. She still dreams of the home on the hill that might have been.

The Chicago man who bought the land from Mrs. Steinmetz hired lawyers. He fought the city for fifteen years in his attempt to build on the land. Once, city officials offered to make a land trade with him. When he investigated, he discovered the land they wanted to trade was directly adjacent to a police shooting range.

Finally, he went to court to battle the city. At trial, he was awarded $240,000 for the land he'd bought originally for $10,000.

In 1988, the Reverend Tommy Barnett of the Phoenix First Assembly of God planned to build a chapel on a site in the mountain preserve at Cactus and 32nd Street. The church boasts a membership of more than 7,000 and thus has considerable political clout.

The City of Phoenix, deciding it wanted to acquire the land, offered Reverend Barnett and his flock $30,000 per acre or a total of $333,000.

Reverend Barnett mounted something of a campaign, going on the Pat McMahon show to tell his story and finally before the Phoenix City Council.

Reverend Barnett expressed outrage that his religious motives had been impugned.

He explained to the city council that the folks at KTAR had told him he had brought about the greatest outpouring of support in the history of the radio station.

At the meeting, Reverend Barnett struck fear into the minds and hearts of Mayor Terry Goddard and the council.

"I think we've cast the church in a very unfortunate light," Goddard finally said, begging for an olive branch.

"They've done a lot for the community." Reverend Barnett stepped to the microphone and delivered a self-serving sermonette about his church and its power.

"We had no intention, whatsoever," he began, "to be anything other than a blessing to this city. I now have no desire to build a prayer chapel with the atmosphere that is here before us now.

"We all have dreams . . . we spent a lot of money on the landscaping, so you'd all be proud of it. Then we get criticized because too much was spent on the landscaping." The Reverend Tommy went on like this for some time as the city councilmembers squirmed.

"I want to say that I'm sorry if we caused any problem to the mountain preserve.

"If you tried to give us a million dollars to build it, we wouldn't build it now. We simply want you to know that it's not right to paint a church with a bad brush for trying to help the city." The Reverend Tommy finally stopped, much to the relief of the politicians.

But his speech apparently paid off much better than the work of any lawyers the church might have hired.

If you look into the minutes of the city council meetings carefully enough, you will find just how effective the Reverend Tommy's exhortation proved to be.

The council finally agreed to pay Reverend Barnett and the Phoenix First Assembly of God more than $1.1 million for its site--an increase of almost $800,000 over the original offer.

Moral: When it's politically expedient, the city pays!

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Tom Fitzpatrick