A proposed federal land exchange that could add 273 acres to the Tonto Apache Reservation has some business owners worried that they'll be facing untaxed competition in the next few years.
And Payson officials want to know how Tonto Apache leaders are going to provide water, law enforcement and fire protection for their growing community.
Tonto Apache leaders and U.S. Forest Service officials will address those concerns and accept additional comments during a public open house Tuesday, April 18 at the reservation.
Tonto Apache leaders said this week that they need the extra land to increase the number of houses in their community and alleviate overcrowded conditions.
Living conditions in the reservation's 32 homes have become critically cramped, Tribal Vice Chairman Nathaniel Campbell said. Many of those homes, which range in size from 1,300 square feet to 1,800 square feet, are housing two families, he said.
"One family here has a two-room house. (The mother) has two sons, a daughter and son-in-law -- five people in two rooms."
Nearby, two parents are living with a son, a daughter and three grandchildren in a three-bedroom home.
Nearly 50 percent of the reservation's 130 residents are children, Campbell said. "We're looking down the line at young people returning here with their families. There's no land for additional housing right now."
Campbell said the Tonto Apaches, who want to expand the size of their reservation from 85 acres to 358 acres with this land exchange, plan to use the extra land strictly for housing.
Tribal Vice Chairman Nathaniel Campbell said, "I do hope that this is negotiated on a government to government basis, and they support the efforts of the tribe to regain aboriginal lands to provide homeland for its people and future generations," he said. "I think they're afraid we're going to be another Prescott, but that's not our intention."
But visions of a tax-free commercial zone flanking the Beeline near the southern entrance to Payson, much like the one that was created on tribal land outside of Prescott, worries local business owners.
"If they use it for housing only, I'm all for it," Doug Brackin, owner of the Majestic Mountain Inn in Payson, said. "If they use it for commercial development and not pay taxes, then I would say it's unfair.
"All business people usually ask for is fairness. Personal property taxes and property taxes on the Majestic Mountain Inn are just under $40,000 a year. I think it's great that they're doing well with the casino. If they stay in the casino business and the convenience store business, then I think it's hunky dory."
Campbell said Tonto Apache leaders have been discussing plans to build a hotel on the reservation, but they're thinking about building it next to the Mazatzal Casino rather than on the exchange land.
The Tonto Apaches plan to exchange 406 acres of private land for 273 acres adjacent to the reservation, including 15 acres across the highway next to the town's new multi-event center. Campbell said the tribal council has no plans for that parcel yet.
Business owners said this week that they also were concerned about plans to build a highway bypass road from Highway 87 to Highway 260 through the proposed exchange land, but these plans have been abandoned, Payson Town Manager Rich Underkofler said. The Arizona Department of Transportation is now considering building a highway bypass south of Round Valley and north of Rye, he said.
The Tonto Apaches and residents along Sutton and Cedar roads opposed the "southeast loop" through the proposed exchange land and that plan was dropped.
"All I know is, it's going to be south and east of town," Town Engineer LaRon Garrett said. "It's been moved out of the exchange land they intend to get."
Rod Byers, district land staff officer with the Payson Ranger District, said the exchange also means a lot to the Forest Service.
"It means there are four parcels we would be receiving," he said. "One of those parcels straddles the Verde River. Any parcel of land that encompasses permanent water and the associated riparian area is extremely important to us for the protection of watersheds and being able to manage relatively rare habitats for wildlife."
Byers said the Forest Service also stands to acquire Little Green Valley, one of only two peat bogs in the state, which is located 12 miles east of Payson near Highway 260 along Green Valley Creek.
"This is extremely rare," Byers said. "We'd like the opportunity to protect and manage it."
Byers and Campbell agree that it will take about two years to complete the land exchange.
"Land exchanges are very complex," Byers said. "There's a lot of oversight from national and regional levels and it takes a long time for an environmental study."
The open house will be held from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 18 in the Tonto Apache Tribe's gymnasium. Written comments regarding the clarification of issues, additional issues or other alternatives can be submitted to Rod Byers, lands staff of the Payson Ranger District, 1009 E. Highway 260, Payson, AZ 85541.