Sle Can Buy Forest Land Say Lawyers

Forest Service lawyers approve Separate Legal Entity’s right to buy 260 acres for a college campus

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Payson cleared another hurdle last week in its quest to build a four-year college on 260 acres of land owned by the U.S. Forest Service.

Lawyers for the Forest Service approved the Rim Country Educational Alliance Separate Legal Entity (SLE) as an agency qualified to buy the 260 acres on which Payson wants to build the campus.

“Late-breaking news,” Payson Mayor Kenny Evans announced at the tail end of last Thursday’s Payson council meeting. “The Forest Service has approved the SLE as the vehicle to purchase the administrative site — it’s a bright step forward.”

Payson’s long-languishing effort to buy land Congress earmarked for sale a decade ago has finally hit the fast track, with the help of new Payson Ranger District Head Ranger Angie Elam.

The town told the Forest Service it wanted to buy the parcel more than a year ago, but not much happened as a result of miscommunications and the departure of a host of top Tonto National Forest officials — including Payson Ranger District Head Ranger Ed Armenta.

That delay threatened to unhinge the intricate schedule for building a campus by 2013 in partnership with Arizona State University — or another university if ASU can’t commit in time.

The delay prompted backers of the campus to lay plans to build a 1,000-student first phase on 67 acres of private land north of Highway 260. The Alliance also is negotiating with Gila County and Gila Community College to buy or lease another nine acres north of the highway.

However, the Alliance continues to push to buy the Forest Service land for the second phase of the campus, which could accommodate an additional 2,000 students by 2014 or 2015, depending on how quickly phase one fills up. Payson and Star Valley joined forces to create the SLE, with each council appointing three members to the SLE board.

Therefore, the Forest Service’s approval of the Alliance SLE as an agency with the legal authority to buy about 260 acres between the existing Payson Ranger Station and Tyler Parkway represents a significant step forward, said Evans.

The Forest Service recently held a public meeting on the proposed land sale, as required by law.

Early on, advocates for the campus hoped that Forest Service officials would be willing to approve a waiver for the long-planned land sale, which would mean the Alliance would not have to pay for an expensive and time-consuming study on whether the site harbored endangered species, archaeological sites or other legally protected resources.

However, Elam said the sale would require an environmental assessment, although various Forest Service facilities have already impacted much of the site.

The certification of the Alliance as a financial partner means the Forest Service can now contract with the Alliance to conduct the necessary study.

Evans estimated that the study will cost about $500,000, including a payment to cover the Forest Service’s costs associated with that study.

Elam has previously said that if all goes well, consultants hired by the Alliance could complete the necessary studies and receive Forest Service approval for the sale by perhaps next August or September.

The proposal represents a windfall for the Payson Ranger District, which has nonetheless until recently not rushed to clear away obstacles.

The district would use the money from the sale to build a new ranger station, storage and administrative offices on about 40 acres surrounding the current, small, cramped ranger station.

In addition, the money from the sale would allow the district to consolidate all its firefighting operations on another 40-acre parcel next to the Gila County maintenance yard on the outskirts of Star Valley.

The complex will include offices, sleeping quarters for fire crews, a place to store and maintain equipment and trucks and a helipad for firefighting helicopters.

Sale of that parcel of land offers the Payson Ranger District the only plausible way to upgrade its facilities, given the budget restrictions facing the Forest Service nationally.

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