Longform

Saving Private Interests

Page 4 of 5

That is likely a popular notion to the state's developers--but perhaps, on the whole, not so attractive to the land's owners, the people of the United States of America.

And then there are the intricacies of the proposal itself. A draft of the legislation that would authorize the land trade has been floating around the northeast Valley for weeks. Included in it is a provision that would quietly usher in a brand-new mechanism for future state/federal land swaps in Arizona.

Environmentalists are frantic over that provision, pointing out that three times in the past decade, Arizonans have rejected ballot proposals asking for their wholesale approval of such trades.

The word on the street is that the provision will come out of the next draft of the legislation, but there are no guarantees it will--or that it won't be slipped back in before the bill becomes law.

Another hot spot has been concern over whether the owners of Spur Cross would be required to follow environmental laws. Early drafts of the legislation included exemptions from the need to obtain an Environmental Impact Statement on the Tonto Forest land proposed for development. The most recent EIS is from the mid-1980s. At Scottsdale's July 14 public feel-good meeting, the developers assured Scottsdale City Council that existing environmental laws would be followed. But, for now, there is no guarantee.

And McCain's Deb Gullett stepped into the fray over that argument at Scottsdale's July 14 public meeting, expressing her anger that anyone would dare to think that John McCain would champion legislation that exempted the development from environmental law.

"I'm sick at heart, and I know that he is, that a very early preliminary draft got out there," Gullett says. And perhaps she should be, since the draft legislation went out with a cover letter from her.

"Several people have made comment about the fact that the legislation would circumvent the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] process. That would never happen. John McCain would never support legislation that would say that we won't apply the environmental laws of the land to this process."

But that's exactly what McCain did with Mount Graham. And until the legislation is signed into law, no one knows if it's what he'll do this time, too. A July 27 letter to a local Audubon Society official from one of the Spur Cross owners' consultants mentions the possibility of an exemption for the project from environmental impact laws--even though days before, the same consultants assured the Scottsdale City Council that no exemptions would apply.

In the case of Mount Graham, McCain ignored recommendations by the U.S. Forest Service.

This time, it is apparent McCain is again ignoring the Forest Service's recommendations. In a July 10 letter to Scottsdale Mayor Sam Campana, Regional Forester Eleanor Towns expressed concern regarding almost every facet of the proposed trade. Internal Forest Service documents indicate that the department's officials have repeatedly asked McCain to reconsider his support of the legislation.

But McCain is seeking only the support of the affected municipalities.
Given the environmental community's rejection of McCain's foray into conservation, it's become obvious that the Spur Cross deal won't succeed at winning him much support from a green-leaning populace, after all. Yet McCain continues his crusade.

What may be propelling him now is anyone's guess, but a clue is on the tip of Deb Gullett's tongue at the Scottsdale meeting after Councilwoman Mary Manross asks why the Spur Cross legislation has to pass this year.

The question throws Gullett. She sputters, "Um. That is a timetable that--I cannot answer that." Then she puzzlingly adds, "That is a question that the developer's representatives need to answer."

Gullett has just said a mouthful. To understand her answer, you have to keep your eye on the presidential hopes of our state's senior senator.

As it happens, developer John Lang and Westplex, the land exchange consulting firm he's hired to facilitate the trade, are calling the shots with regard to the Spur Cross land deal--not Senator John McCain. Westplex consultants authored the draft legislation. John Lang has made it clear he wants the legislation passed, has promised that if it doesn't pass this session, he will begin building on Spur Cross Ranch.

Lang's threat may or may not hold water. He and the owners of Spur Cross must first resolve their litigation with Cave Creek. Lang says he's confident it won't be a problem, but if the town decides to balk, the land could be tied up in court for years.

McCain and Gullett surely know this. So why, as Councilwoman Manross asked, are they so gung-ho to push this legislation through? If all McCain wanted was to appear green, he would happily wait until the outstanding issues were resolved.

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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.