Lone Holdout Opposed To Land Exchange

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A lone holdout is opposing a proposed land exchange between the U.S. Forest Service and the Ellison Creek Homeowners Association.

John Webb, a Mesa cabinet maker who has owned a cabin in Ellison Creek since 1968, promises a fight to the finish to block the deal. The community of summer homes is located on the Control Road seven miles off Highway 260 past Tonto Village.

Through the exchange, the Forest Service would pick up 520 acres of land at several locations, including a meadow surrounded by conifers south of Alpine, in exchange for 143 acres on which some 60 cabins now sit. The association proposed the deal according to Rod Byers, lands and minerals staff officer for the Payson Ranger District.

"These cabins were permitted back in 1954 and they've essentially been carried under permit ever since," Byers said. "The owners submitted a proposal to us about six years ago, and they put together a package of properties that were attractive to us for inclusion in the forest."

According to Byers, the association has already drafted a subdivision plat and submitted it to Gila County.

"Essentially the county is willing to recognize them as an existing subdivision because they've been out there for 50 years," Byers said. "They'd be platted as one acre lots around each of those cabins and the remaining property would be held as open space."

Five cabin owners originally opposed the swap, but Byers says Webb is the only remaining holdout.

"The other four opted to accept a lease from the association for the same period their lease with us would run -- to the end of 2009," Byers said. "Mr. Webb is the one exception and he is adamant that he doesn't want anything to happen. He's outnumbered and we went with the vast majority and accepted their exchange proposal."

Webb says his position is easy to justify, and that the other cabin owners are motivated by ignorance, fear or greed.

"Part of the tactics used by the association is to make them afraid that the Forest Service is going to cancel their lease," Webb said.

But the leases run for 20 years and the Forest Service is required to give 10 years notice of its intention not to renew them. The current leases were signed in 1989, and the Forest Service failed to issue a notice of intent not to renew in 1999, according to Webb.

"People are like sheep," Webb said. "They're afraid."

Webb also accuses the association of misleading cabin owners into believing the Forest Service was going to increase their annual lease payment dramatically.

"They said that by the year 2000 we would be paying $2000 a year," he said. "But our fee today is $500."

Under terms of the Forest Service leases, cabin owners agree to a set of fairly stringent regulations, including not occupying their cabins year-round. Webb believes that's another reason why the association wants out of the leases.

"A lot of Yuppies own the cabins now, and they want to see their value go up," he said. "They're not nearly as valuable if they can only be used on weekends."

He also cautions that Ellison Creek has the same water problems the rest of the Rim country has.

"I've been president of the homeowners association and I know the water situation is precarious in Ellison Creek," he said. "Having people live there year-round would be a disaster."

Webb remembers a time when Ellison Creek cabin owners were a different breed.

"We used to have potlucks and dances and picnics," he said. "It meant more than just real estate."

Webb has taken his fight to Forest Service headquarters in Albuquerque and to his congressional representatives in Washington. He knows he is not likely to prevail, but he promises to fight on.

Byers wishes he'd save everybody a lot of trouble by accepting the inevitable.

"We've done exchanges with four associations out of six," he said. "(Ellison Creek) is number five and we've started on Diamond Point, which is number six. Mr. Webb can accept an association lease or he can remove his cabin and be reimbursed.

Webb says he would be reimbursed $20,000 for a cabin that is worth $75,000, which is typical of the attitude he's fighting.

"They coerce people and they lie to people to get them to change their minds."

Byers responds that Webb is simply stirring up trouble and spreading misinformation.

"He's reached out to everybody who'd like to make a fuss on his behalf," Byers said.

A final decision on the land exchange won't be made until an environmental assessment is completed. If Webb hasn't given in by that point he can be forced out, according to Byers.

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