Blue Ridge Pipeline Clears Final Deadline

No one contests plan, construction on $34 million project will start in the spring

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Bring on the bulldozers — the Blue Ridge pipeline is ready to go.

On Monday, the last day for disputing a positive environmental assessment of the $34 million pipeline passed peacefully, said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.

That removes the last major bureaucratic hurdle blocking a project that will more than double Payson’s long-term water supply.

The expiration of the protest period also cleared the decks for the Forest Service to move another step closer to selling the Rim Country Educational Alliance SLE about 260 acres for a university campus here.

Forest Service officials had said they couldn’t take the next step forward in selling the Alliance the land until the end of the protest period on the pipeline.

“It’s a milestone,” said Evans, “and we had not a single protest filed.”

The town has nearly completed the engineering plans for the 15-mile-long pipeline mostly buried alongside Houston Mesa Road, with three buried crossings of the East Verde River.

Evans said he expects the town to seek construction bids in January or February so that it can start construction on the project in the early spring.

Construction should take 12 to 18 months, with water delivery expected in 2014.

That’s right when the Alliance hopes to open the first phase of an ultimately 6,000-student university campus.

That project will also likely face another milestone today before the Gila County Board of Supervisors, which will consider a proposal to sell the Alliance a 21-acre parcel across the highway from the much larger Forest Service site.

Gila County holds the land in trust for Gila Community College and county staff has negotiated an agreement to sell the Alliance just under 21 acres for $600,000, although several Gila Community College board members have said they still have problems with the renegotiated sales agreement.

The proposed agreement included with the agenda materials for today’s board of supervisors meeting contains some key changes from an agreement the GCC board opposed. For instance, the revised agreement raised the sales price from $500,000 to $600,000. In addition, the agreement would let the county buy back at the same price both the 21 acres and a one-acre parcel Payson sold to the Alliance should the plans for the university fall through in the next three years.

The county has for some years held in trust 54 acres of former Forest Service land for GCC. Several weeks ago, the county gave GCC 32 acres that included its current, five-acre campus and undeveloped land to accommodate its future growth. GCC’s 32 acres sits next to the 21 acres the county wants to sell to the Alliance.

GCC board members Tom Loeffler and Larry Stephenson both said they want additional changes in the agreement. They said GCC needs more than 32 acres to accommodate an ultimate, peak student population of up to 6,000. They said they hoped that the county would shift the boundaries of the sale to the Alliance by 3 to 6 acres. Second, they want the county to include a deed restriction that would limit use of the land to educational purposes. That could include the research center or business incubator the Alliance has considered, but not things like a hotel, commercial center or solar cell assembly plant, they said in an interview on Friday. The legal restrictions on the Alliance SLE already limit activities to those in support of its educational mission, however, Loeffler and Stephenson said they wanted more restrictive language.

Evans said the last-minute concerns raised by the GCC board forced the Alliance to put off putting a deal with ASU on the Board of Regents’ agenda in December, although the proposal wasn’t on the officially posted agenda published a month before the meeting. The Alliance hopes to put an agreement before the Regents in February, if it can secure title to the land.

Evans has also said that further significant delays in acquiring the county land could prompt the Alliance to put the whole project off for a year so it could build the whole 6,000-student campus and spin-off uses entirely on the 260 acres of Forest Service land south of the highway.

If the Alliance can win approval of the Regents for a campus in February, Evans said he hopes backers can still meet an ambitious timetable that would welcome students to a campus north of the highway by the fall of 2014 — at about the same time the Blue Ridge water would likely arrive.

If so, the nearly moribund Rim Country construction industry could find itself scrambling to find workers to complete the two biggest construction projects in generations at the same moment.

The lack of protests of the Blue Ridge pipeline offered a welcome respite from complications that have beset a project that will make Payson one of the few communities in the state with enough water to underwrite all its future growth plans.

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