Even if everything goes perfectly, it will take the U.S. Forest Service at least 10 months to sell 260 acres on which the Rim Country Educational Alliance wants to build a 6,000-student college campus, according to Payson Ranger District Head Ranger Angie Elam.
Even then, the Alliance will have to likely foot the bill for a $500,000 environmental assessment, which includes about $150,000 to cover the costs the Forest Service incurs in reviewing that study, said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.
Essentially, the Forest Service will have to go through the same process it did in reviewing the Blue Ridge pipeline project before it can transfer land earmarked for sale by Congress a decade ago.
As a result, the Alliance will move forward as quickly as possible to build the 1,000-student phase one of the proposed Arizona State University campus on private land north of Highway 260. The Alliance will build phase two of the campus later on the Forest Service land.
Elam presided over a public meeting on the land scale last week that drew several hundred people, almost all of them in support of the plan to sell the Alliance 230 acres. The Forest Service will use the money from the sale to overhaul a 40-acre administrative and visitor center and build a new, 40-acre site for the district’s fire-fighting operations.
“It was the most positive and constructive public meeting of that sort I can ever remember participating in,” said Elam, who praised the participants’ knowledgeable questions.
She promised to move the process along as quickly as possible, but said the law governing the preparation of an environmental assessment requires repeated pauses for comment periods and reviews by outside agencies. She said the law requires the Payson Ranger District to inventory things like archaeological sites, historical sites and habitat for threatened and endangered species.
The schedule for sale of the 260 acres includes a scoping period to gather up potential concerns from the public and affected agencies. That scoping period started last week and should last until November of 2011. She said the consultants could finish the draft of the environmental assessment by February of 2012 and complete a review by the regional office by March of 2012. That schedule would then include a public comment period and wrap up the assessment by June of 2012.
The assessment would then go to Washington for review. If no problems emerge in the course of those reviews, the Forest Service could free the land for sale by August of next year, she said.
This week, Elam said the Forest Service could not really start the process until the backers of the college had finished the legal process of setting up the Separate Legal Entity that will actually buy the land.
Elam said the assessment will prepare an inventory of what’s on the land, but won’t have to analyze the impact of actually building a 6,000-student campus, dorms, a 500-room conference hotel and things like a research park. Previously, town officials feared the Forest Service would insist on a study that analyzed the long-term environmental impacts, rather than simply determining whether the land had ancient ruins or endangered species.
Elam took issue with previously published reports suggesting payments to the Forest Service as part of a “cost recovery” agreement amounted to a contract requiring the Forest Service to get the work done by the target dates included in the agreement. Payson officials have previously said the Forest Service violated its “contract” with the town in its delay in approving the environmental assessment for the pipeline.
However, Elam said that even though the “cost recovery agreement” included target dates, it didn’t constitute a legally binding deadline. Moreover, she said the cost recovery agreement the Forest Service will require to complete the land sale, will also not include legally enforceable deadlines.
Evans conceded that the agreement didn’t include any penalties for missing the various target dates but that “if it’s not an agreement, then what is it? The agreement said they would use their best efforts to accomplish this by a specific date and spells out that if there are times when the resources are not sufficient, they can therefore ask the applicant to recover the extraordinary cost of trying to expedite the environmental assessment.”
Evans said the unanticipated delays in approving the Blue Ridge pipeline assessment prompted the Alliance to settle for the first