Big Airport Land Buy Still Stalled

Cash-strapped Payson council delays first step in purchase of 13.5 acres into next year, hoping for revival of federal grants

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Payson still wants to buy 13.5 acres of land swapped with the Forest Service alongside the expanding Payson Airport.

Eventually. But, like, don’t hold your breath.

And with any luck, Tom Collins might eventually turn a profit on his 14-years-and-counting wait to complete a land swap and sale before he dies, like three of his business partners.

“After 14 years of dealing with this situation,” Collins last week told the Payson council, “we’re just to a point now where we need something to look at to move forward.”

Sorry, Tom. Not this year, now that the recession has dried up money that both Payson and the Federal Aviation Administration need to fund the on-again, off-again land purchase.

“Just seems like 2011 is the earliest we’re going to be able to do that,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.

“Just so long as we have something moving forward,” said Collins, “instead of just hanging out in the wind. We went through a lot to purchase this land. Some of the nicest property is the property the town wants.”

Most of the 14-year ordeal for investors had to do with the attempt to assemble privately owned land the Forest Service would trade for land on the outskirts of Payson. The deal started out with more than 1,000 acres, which would have provided a huge tract for the town’s future growth.

However, the trade gradually dwindled — then nearly stalled when then-Congressman Rick Renzi got tangled up in allegations he tried to influence land trades to benefit his business partner. The attention paid to the issue of federal land trades helped shrink the airport land trade to about 220 acres.

The town had negotiated to buy 13.5 acres of that total, which it planned to turn over to the independent Airport Authority. The group that runs the airport then intended to lease out that land to airplane-related businesses to generate revenue to operate the airport. The town figured the FAA would foot 95 percent of the bill, with a modest matching amount from the town.

However, when Payson’s budget crashed and burned last year at the same time the FAA’s grant program started to sputter, the town pulled back from the purchase agreement. When problems emerged in clearing title for the land, the council indefinitely postponed the purchase.

Last week, Payson Public Works Director LaRon Garrett reported that all the problems with the title had been cleared for the first 3.25-acre chunk of the land. However, “we still have some issues,” he told the council.

Specifically, the FAA had announced that it wouldn’t be giving out any more airport grants until the 2010-11 fiscal year.

“They said they’ll resume processing grants by the end of the year, which would make it eligible in the next fiscal year,” said Garrett. “A lot of things are falling into place, but there’s an issue of timing.”

Councilor Ed Blair then moved to direct town staff to include money for the town’s share of the purchase in the 2010 budget, “but only if the FAA funds are committed.” The rest of the council supported that idea.

Collins seemed resigned to continuing his interminable wait, and noted that three members of his investment group have already died of cancer.

“We’re at a point where so many people are so frustrated, that we need a little something to rely on. I just hope I’m not the next guy to be buried up on that property before all is said and done.”

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