BLM officials nevertheless insist their current appraisal value of $7,000 per acre reflects a fair price, noting they have twice updated the appraisal since Biewer first proposed the trade several years ago. Comparisons with higher sales prices in the area are not valid for several reasons, they contend.
"This is a much larger parcel than most, and the price per acre is always cheaper for large parcels," explains BLM appraiser Mike Werner. "In addition, factors like water and sewer availability, zoning, and sale terms affect price greatly."
Werner says the BLM did search for other transactions against which to compare its land, but found few sales of such large acreage. In its appraisal, the BLM quotes sales for other sizable parcels from $8,000 to $15,000 per acre.
The so-called "18K sale" involved around sixty acres, a sizable parcel, but Ruddick says it can't be considered representative. "We rejected that sale as a comparison because we have doubts that it was an `arm's length' transaction," Ruddick asserts. He declines to elaborate, saying the parcel is subject to pending lawsuits between its former owners.
In his lawsuit in the incredibly complex case, Biewer claims his former partners, Mark Shapiro, Alan Jones, and Jay Cooper, concealed information on the sale of land owned by the partnership, in which Biewer had a 50 percent interest. Biewer's suit claims his ex-partners breached a noninterference agreement signed by the four after their partnership fell apart by protesting his current pending trade with the BLM.
In a letter to Ruddick dated December 12, 1990, Biewer accuses former partner Mark Shapiro of trying to scuttle the pending trade.
He claims his former partners "threatened to go to BLM and screw up the [pending] exchange."
In their formal response to Biewer's lawsuit, Shapiro and the other partners deny breaching any obligations to the partnership or interfering with the pending trade. In their countersuit, Shapiro, Jones, and Cooper claim Biewer has interfered with the subsequent, $18,000-per-acre sale of their land, and ask unspecified damages. Biewer has not yet filed his response to the countersuit.
The BLM's Ruddick, however, claims the agency was not influenced by Biewer's assertions regarding the 18K sale, and rejected the sale solely on the basis that other deals leading up to it seemed to involve interconnected partnerships. "It wasn't a clean sale," Ruddick emphasizes. "By `clean' I mean where there is no connection between buyer and seller."
Shapiro, reached at his Phoenix office, declines comment. "I have client-partnership confidentiality requirements which prevent me from discussing anything," Shapiro says. "If you check the records, you'll see everything is in order and in the record."
BLM officials argue they can't be faulted if, somewhere down the road, a land trader manages to find someone willing to pay inflated prices. "An appraisal is good for that one date and one date only," Werner says. "It can describe the current market and sales environment, but it can't anticipate a value two years down the road."
The pattern of low acquisition costs and high profits is repeated again and again in half a dozen unrelated swaps involving BLM land in Mohave County both before and after the investigation. Among the most profitable deals are:
* A 103-acre parcel acquired from BLM for $1,100 an acre in 1988. It was sold by the trader to investors for more than $8,000 an acre a year later. Estimated profit: $700,000-plus.
* A 160-acre parcel acquired for $2,500 an acre in 1988. It was sold in 1989 to an investment group for $11,400 to $11,700 an acre. Estimated profit: $1.45 million.
* A 354-acre parcel acquired in 1988 for $2,250 per acre by investors. A total of 281 acres of it was sold to a builder last year for $8,673 per acre. Estimated profit: $1.8 million.
BLM officials acknowledge that large speculative profits continued to be made on land even after the reform effort. But they dispute assertions that land valued at $7,000 per acre will lead to yet another windfall for private traders. "Our best information is that the market has kind of plateaued," Werner says. "The combination of the war, the S&L crisis and the recession has had far-reaching effect. The market has taken a rest.
"People may be asking $25,000 an acre, but how many are getting it?"
Some experts in the Bullhead City area agree with the BLM on that point.
BLM argues that in some cases where windfall profits were made, the trader performed at least some development, such as planning or zoning the acreage. Agency officials contend they evaluate "development potential" in making appraisals on land. But they admit they do not attempt to skip the middleman and trade directly to developers, thereby reaping maximum value for the trade.