Saving Private Interests

Almost 200 people are gathered at Scottsdale City Hall on a mid-July afternoon for what Mayor Sam Campana blissfully has dubbed an "information workshop" on the city's latest conundrum: the proposed Spur Cross Ranch land exchange.

Spur Cross Ranch is not actually in Scottsdale, but the proposed trade that would save the undeveloped parcel of Sonoran desert in north Cave Creek--a complicated three-way exchange of private, federal and state lands--allows for the development of a hunk of the Tonto National Forest adjacent to Scottsdale.

U.S. Senator John McCain has agreed to shepherd legislation authorizing the proposal through Congress, but only if the communities of Cave Creek, Carefree and Scottsdale agree to the deal. Earlier in the summer, a peeved-sounding McCain sent out a press release saying he was abandoning the proposal because Scottsdale wouldn't support it. Actually, he was only calling Scottsdale's bluff. Scottsdale remains the last holdout--hence, today's gathering.

In the past few months, the Spur Cross debate has grown ugly, pitting preservationist against developer and government bureaucrat against politician and--oh dear!--Scottsdalian against Scottsdalian, but Campana is determined to make this public meeting a beautiful experience. There will be no votes tonight, no yelling and screaming, just friendly dialogue. Bottled water and white chocolate macadamia nut cookies are served, and everyone thanks everyone else effusively for the opportunity to speak. And speak. And speak.

Well into the seven-hour hearing, Deb Gullett steps to the podium--and the temperature in the council chambers drops about 20 degrees. Gullett, who runs Senator John McCain's Arizona offices, tries to adopt the Scottsdale way; she smiles, but she still just looks annoyed.

Gullett is brief. "I need to tell you, the clock is ticking," she warns, referring to the dwindling days of the 105th Congress, which is about to recess for August and then again, for the fall elections, October 9. She continues, stressing Senator John McCain's leadership on the celebrated land-trade scheme that he must now push through Congress. "Although my boss Senator McCain is an incredibly skilled legislator," she says, "introducing this legislation, having hearings on it, getting it through both the House and the Senate and getting it signed by the President of the United States in two months is a short time frame." She leaves little doubt that John McCain is out to save Spur Cross Ranch.

After whizzing through a number of bullet points, Gullett turns to leave the podium. Wait, she's told. Councilwoman Mary Manross has a question.

Manross is so demure she can barely be heard, even with a microphone. "What is the urgency that it must be done this session?" she wonders, adding the question that is probably on the minds of a lot of people in the room: "Why not next session?"

That's a difficult question to answer.
The effort to save Spur Cross Ranch is a complicated thing. It involves wildlife habitats, riparian ecosystems, archaeological ruins, a real estate development, three lawsuits, three municipalities, the state of Arizona, the federal government, a multimillionaire investor and international businessman with political connections. And Senator John McCain. Before most people knew what Spur Cross was, McCain had announced his intention to save it. With a political record thin on environmental accomplishment, McCain initially surprised many in the Green movement. But it didn't take the enviros long to figure out what he was really up to--it has something to do with presidential politics. Meanwhile, McCain has learned one thing: It's not easy being Green.

In ancient times, the Hohokam lived on the land now known as Spur Cross Ranch. In modern times, the land has belonged to a Scottsdale family called Dreiseszun and a Cincinnati business, Great American Life Insurance. In the 1980s, the owners of Spur Cross sold the 2,000-plus-acre parcel--a Maricopa County island, abutting the Tonto National Forest to the north and the town of Cave Creek to the south--to a businessman named J.R. Norton. He had the land zoned for housing subdivisions, but he never got a chance to develop it. Norton, whose claim to fame is that he served as agriculture secretary in the Reagan Administration for all of five days, lost the property in a bankruptcy foreclosure during the Arizona real estate bust, and the original owners got it back.

Little is known about family scion Herbert Dreiseszun, other than that he's a longtime Arizonan.

Great American is run by Carl Lindner, the 78-year-old multimillionaire who also runs Chiquita Brands International and American Financial Corporation, and whose family controls--among other interests--United Dairy Farmers. Lindner, who is from Cincinnati, mentored another famous Ohioan, Charlie Keating.

The ownership of Spur Cross today: Great American Life, 70 percent; Scottsdale businessman Herbert Dreiseszun and his family trusts, 30 percent.

In 1996, talk arose about the possibility of finally developing Spur Cross Ranch. Scottsdale developer John Lang--who had cut a deal to buy the property once zoning issues were resolved--wanted to put more than 600 houses, a resort and an 18-hole golf course on the land, and the owners approached the county regarding rezoning the property. The town of Cave Creek opposed the idea, and quickly voted to annex Spur Cross Ranch. That made any county zoning null and void, and has led to a series of lawsuits filed against the town by the land's owners.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.