Town officials told representatives from the Forest Service that they don't want land exchanges to out-pace the town's water supply, but they do want public lands in private hands to meet the needs of the town.
U.S. Forest Service officials are re-evaluating how they trade and sell federal land for water and development, and they held a public meeting Tuesday at the Inn of Payson to find out how Payson officials plan to direct the town's growth.
Council members Ray Schum and Jim Spencer told forest officials, including Tonto Forest Supervisor Chuck Bazan, that the town needs more land to attract industrial development, higher paying jobs and affordable housing to Payson.
"There is no affordable housing here," Spencer said. "And there never will be unless we get some manageable land."
Schum said, "The exchanges need to move at a high rate of speed, but we can't jump into this without water."
Mayor Vern Stiffler said he doesn't object to land exchanges as long as the associated population growth doesn't jeopardize the town's water supply.
"I would be very much in favor of handling these land exchanges on a smaller scale," Stiffler said. "We have to watch growth in terms of water. I also look at the town calling the shots. I'm for no land exchanges until we have the water situation resolved."
Forest Service officials said they've been receiving a barrage of requests to explore for water on Forest Service land.
Rich Martin, physical resource group leader with the Tonto National Forest, said surface water around the state has been fully appropriated, but the state does not control the ground water outside metropolitan areas.
"The law is, whoever owns the land has the right to drill for water," Martin said. "In most states, the state gets involved."
He said the demand for ground water is growing, but pumping water out of the ground can diminish surface water sources.
"That's part of our concern," Martin said. "If you want to take water out of the national forest, you'd better demonstrate to us that you don't have an alternative supply. You're going to have to prove you're not going to impact surrounding springs and things of that nature. We're tightening down our policy on the issue of (water drilling permits)."
Forest officials told the standing-room-only crowd, many of whom were investors in the Payson IV land exchange -- a deal to exchange 1,600 acres of private land for 1,570 acres of federal land near Payson -- that the rules are changing. The Payson IV land exchange unraveled this year during negotiations.
Interim Payson Ranger Rod Byers said there were many reasons the Payson IV proposal died.
"There was a loss of key people in the Forest Service," he said. "We were not able to process (the deal)."
And now, he said, the federal government is revamping its land-exchange program to include competitive bidding and perhaps even direct sales -- a technique that has been forbidden. That might mean that large groups, such as Payson IV, will no longer be key to such exchanges, he said.
Carl Taylor, public services group leader with the Tonto National Forest, said, "There's been a proposal to look at competitive land exchanges. We would give everybody a chance to put together packages. We would look at the best package and would proceed to negotiate.
"Give us your best offer -- it could even be cash. We're not under an edict that we have to do competitive bidding, but we are under an edict to get the best bargain."
George Armstrong, a Payson IV investor whose family owns Doll Baby Ranch southwest of Payson, told Forest Service officials that they were "fiddling while Rome burned."
Armstrong, whose family settled in the area in the 1930s, has been in the Payson IV Land Exchange since 1994.
"It's very important for us to see a commitment from the Forest Service so we can keep people who have all their money tied up in this land exchange," he said.
On the horizon
A bill in the state Legislature stands to free up the 296 acres of Forest Service land that surrounds the Payson Ranger District office in east Payson for exchange, Forest Service officials said.
If the land-exchange bill passes, the district will be able to exchange the land and move its offices to a smaller site, freeing up the land for the town.
Town Manager Rich Underkofler said he has a concern about development at the airport and asked when additional Forest Service land would be available for exchange in the northwest corner of town.
"I hope you will not exchange any land at the end of the runway," Underkofler told Forest Service officials. "It's in our flight pattern. We have a need to acquire more land by the airport. Can you give us any insight into when you'd put up the land by the airport for exchange?
Bazan said the Forest Service is open to such an exchange, but he didn't know when property in that area would be available.
"I think the time has come to have serious discussions to prioritize available land," Stiffler said.