Controversy Brews Over Tonto Apache Land Exchange

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"These are the lands the Tonto Apache Indians lived on for years," said Lat Celmins, an attorney for the local Native Americans.


The 273 acres the Tonto Apache Tribe hopes to obtain in a land exchange with the Forest Service at the south edge of town is only a small part of what they once lived on, he said.


In an interview Tuesday, Celmins said he's heard some negative comments from people who live adjacent to the Forest Service property involved in the trade with the Tonto Apaches. As proposed, the Tonto Apaches' residential areas will join directly with south Payson neighborhoods, such as Elk Ridge and Rim View Heights.


Celmins said he talked to people at the tribe's informational meeting April 18 about setback lines or buffer green belts between current home properties and proposed tribal residential properties.


He said one man told him that he'll oppose the exchange unless there's a 100-foot setback.


"Nobody in the tribal community will want a home that's up against someone else's," Celmins said.


Celmins said he also heard comments from one man who said he didn't want a "slum" in his back yard.


"I've heard that comment ... from more than one person up there, and it embarrassed me that those kinds of comments were being made," said Rod Byers, district land staff officer with the Payson Ranger District.


Nathan Campbell, vice chairman of the Tonto Apaches, said, "It was degrading to hear that. As a tribal leader and a Native American, I am outraged. The tribe has money for our own sewer plant and maybe we can use that as a buffer zone between the tribe and the communities that don't want a 'slum' next to them."


"Everybody cannot afford a $200,000 house," Celmins said. "The housing we're going to have is going to be the highest quality given the resources we have. The tribe is acquiring back its aboriginal land for residential purposes only. We believe they'll be quality dwellings. These will be as nice as many of the homes in Payson.


Emily DePugh, a resident of Elk Ridge who lives on Hunter Street, said her main concern is the 100-foot buffer zone that she wants between the Tonto Apaches and the residents of Elk Ridge. But she is also concerned with increased traffic on Phoenix Street.


"I understand they're going to use Phoenix Street as an access," she said. "I have two children, ages 7 and 10. Other people on my street have younger children."


DePugh said she and her neighbors in Elk Ridge and Rim View Heights are also concerned that the value of their property will go down.


"I think the tribe has done a tremendous job supporting youth in the Town of Payson," DePugh said. "I just want property values to stay. We appreciate them giving us the opportunity to voice our concerns, but we think it's a done deal."


Byers said many of the comments he's received have been similar to DePugh's -- concerns about the buffer zone, increased traffic, and decreasing property values.


"Once we come up with a list of issues, then we go out and start developing answers," Byers said.


Forest Service officials said it may be two years before the exchange is final. In the meantime, the 130 people who live on the Tonto Apache Reservation are living in crowded conditions, many with two families or extended families living in cramped quarters.


Written comments to the Forest Service can be addressed to: The Payson Ranger Station, attention Rod Byers, 1009 East Highway 260, Payson, AZ, 85541.

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