The Forest Service continues to plod through the process of selling 300 acres to the Rim Country Educational Alliance, despite uncertainties about whether the group can strike a deal with Arizona State University.
Countering suggestions the land sale awaited money for environmental studies, Payson Ranger District head ranger Angie Elam said, “we’re moving through NEPA as quickly as we can. Completion is scheduled for this fall — I think in October.”
Forest Service rules require a survey of the property to determine whether the sale would affect any endangered species or archaeological site. Donors have fronted the money to pay for the environmental studies and a cost-recovery agreement with the Forest Service, although the Alliance continues to raise money to offset those costs.
Elam said the preliminary studies so far haven’t revealed any issues concerning endangered species that would hold up the sale.
However, she said the Alliance also wants to complete the purchase as a “direct sale,” which means the Forest Service can sell the property based on the value set by an independent appraiser rather than putting the property out for competitive bids.
“The direct sale is a whole other process,” said Elam. “Mayor Kenny Evans and the SLE are working with people in our lands office and in the regional office to put together a direct sale. Many things are happening at the same time and a lot of things are happening all at once.”
Elam said she didn’t know how long the direct sale process might take beyond the environmental assessment, which she’s confident the Alliance’s consultant will complete before the end of the year.
Meanwhile, after additional review, Elam said the district decided to stick to the original plan to keep a portion of the 300 acres for a rebuilt Payson Ranger Station and to move the district’s firefighting operations to a 40-acre plot of federal land next to the Gila County Maintenance Yard on the outskirts of Star Valley.
The Forest Service and Payson had initially considered shifting the firefighting operations to a piece of town-owned property right next to the airport. However, Elam said the review showed that the Forest Service couldn’t use more than one helicopter at time at that location due to airport traffic and clearances.
So after additional review, the Payson Ranger District decided to put all the firefighting operations on a five-acre parcel surrounded by 35 acres of buffer zone.
“We just wanted to revisit that and see whether the current people felt it is the way to go,” said Elam of the review after the Tonto National Forest received a new forest supervisor.
Elam said she didn’t know how long it might take to complete the sale, which Congress authorized a decade ago.
“A lot of it is still in the draft stage, but it’s definitely making progress,” she said.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans agreed.
“The discussions are ongoing,” he said of the purchase of 260 to 300 acres south of Highway 260 between the current Payson Ranger Station and Tyler Parkway.
He said the Payson negotiators wanted to make sure that the Forest Service would make the direct sale before the Alliance paid for the substantial costs of the environmental assessment.
“All these issues are interrelated,” he said. “We don’t want to pay for the NEPA and then have them sell it to Donald Trump or someone. You’ve got one card laying against another. So it’s extremely helpful to have someone like Angie involved.”
Evans noted that private donors have so far spent more than $200,000 to move the deal forward. Donors have promised to advance the $373,000 needed to complete the environmental studies required to free the land for purchase. However, some of the backers of the $400 million plan to build a campus here have suggested they would like to see the Alliance raise local donations to demonstrate the town’s commitment.
Meanwhile, the Alliance continues to negotiate with Arizona State University about the financial terms of the proposal to build a 6,000-student campus — starting with a 1,000-student phase one, which backers hope they could have open as early as the fall of 2014.
The Alliance has the option to buy about 67 acres north of the highway, which could accommodate phase one of the university campus — or perhaps a sports academy. Evans has said that the Alliance has advanced informal, back-channel negotiations with the sports conglomerate IMG to perhaps build a 1,000-student sports academy north of the highway.
IMG officials have refused to confirm that any negotiations have taken place.
Evans said discussions with the development firm link to IMG continue, but that those discussions haven’t yet resulted in a formal proposal on either side.