The Arizona Corporation Commission on Thursday ordered a landowner to grant access to a well used by Brooke Utilities to provide water to 85 residents in Geronimo Estates.
Complaints from homeowners, State Rep. Brenda Barton and the water company prompted the corporation commission to hastily schedule a hearing and step into a feud between Brooke Utilities and a homeowner.
Steve Prahin has been bickering with the water company since at least 2006 about ownership of a well on a property he bought at a tax sale.
But after years of inaction by the courts and the corporation commission, Prahin this week reportedly blocked the water company’s access to the well, cutting off water service to most of the subdivision in a remote valley off the Control Road.
The commission did not take a position on the dispute between Prahin and Brooke, but did order the property owner to allow Brooke access to the well pending a resolution of the underlying disagreement.
Commission Chairman Gary Pearce at the meeting in Phoenix said “I understand we have a disagreement. I don’t favor one side in that disagreement over the other at all. What we’re doing here today is protecting these customers. That’s our obligation. I wish both sides well in their dispute, may it be resolved soon and with as little expense as possible to you. But from our end, please abide by this order so we can make sure that all these customers of yours are taken care of.”
The corporation commission’s motion amounts to an appeal to the Gila County Sheriff’s Office to act if Prahin makes any effort to prevent the water company from diverting water from the well on his property.
However, the lawyer for the corporation commission said the commission has no real ability to issue instructions to the sheriff’s department.
Lawyers for Brooke Utilities, owner of the Payson Water Company, said they would go to court today for a formal order granting the company emergency access to the well, while the two sides continue to dispute ownership.
The long-running dispute has resulted in repeated complaints and counter complaints for the past six years. It has also embittered relations between Geronimo Estates and the smaller adjacent subdivision of Elusive Acres, on which the disputed well sits. Brooke Utilities has two much smaller wells in Geronimo Estates, but they don’t produce enough water to serve the community’s needs.
The dispute has spawned a thick file, but no hint of resolution. In one set of papers filed with the corporation commission, the water company put the value of the disputed well at about $3,000. In other filings, Prahin set the value of the well, storage tank and connecting pipes at more like $300,000.
The dispute turns on whether deed restrictions put in place by the original developer of the subdivision gave the water company rights to water from the well and therefore legal access.
The corporation commission imposed a building moratorium on the area 31 years ago years ago for lack of a sufficient water supply. More than half of the 223 homeowners in Geronimo Estates therefore have to haul in their own water.
The company insists that it has rights to that water under the terms of an agreement with the previous landowner. The current owner insists the company never made the payments required by that agreement and so has no right to the facilities.
The complaints on file with the corporation commission testify to a long history of increasingly bitter confrontation and recrimination between Prahin, a former dairy farmer, and water company officials.
A complaint filed this week on behalf of the water company by Patrick Black from the Phoenix law firm of Fennemore Craig asked the commission to dismiss a series of complaints filed by Prahin.
Frustrated residents have once again found themselves caught in the bewildering crossfire.
“It hurts the community,” said one resident who asked not to be named. “We used to be really close with Geronimo Estates, but this has caused a division. We used to pay Geronimo Estates homeowners’ fees: all one happy family. But it just got nasty, so they kind of split up. Now there’s a gate and everything.”
The corporation commission on Thursday insisted that Prahin can’t restrict the community’s water supply while the dispute continues.
“Obviously, I don’t know what the Gila County attorney will do,” said the commission’s lawyer, as Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin sat in the audience listening. “If we were to be faced with a situation where this didn’t bring about some sort of resolution, then we will bring this back before you at another meeting and may well have a situation where we would give you legal advice in an executive session.”