Ranger Seeks Direct Sale Of Land For College

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The Payson Ranger District hopes to get approval to sell some 260 acres of land directly to Payson without putting the land on the market, said Head Ranger Angie Elam.

She said such a “direct” land sale remains unusual, but she hopes the regional and national offices of the Forest Service will approve her request for a sale based on an independent appraisal without putting on the market the land the Rim Country Educational Alliance wants to use to build the later phases of a 6,000-student university.

The Payson Ranger District has also signed a “cost recovery” agreement with the Alliance, which will move the sale to the head of a long line of Forest Service projects based on the Alliance’s promise to cover the agency’s costs. Among other things, the Payson Ranger District is working on a plan to restrict cross country vehicle travel, monitor the Blue Ridge pipeline, overhaul the overall forest plan and approve massive timber sales as part of the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative.

“We don’t yet have the authority to do a direct sale,” said Elam. “Such sales are uncommon. It’s much more common to do a land exchange,” she said.

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans has previously said he thought a direct sale was all but assured, a key element in an ambitious plan to build a 6,000-student university campus here. Nonetheless, on the assumption the Forest Service could not complete the sale before the end of this year, the Alliance also bought a 21-acre parcel from Gila County for $600,000. The Alliance hopes to build the first 1,000-student phase of the campus on that land by the fall of 2013. It would then build the balance of the campus and support facilities like a convention hotel on the Forest Service land south of the highway.

A decade ago Congress listed the parcel of land between the Payson Ranger Station and Tyler Parkway as excess property, effectively authorizing its sale. If the Forest Service approves a direct sale, it could save the Alliance months — and the uncertainty of an open bidding process for the land.

Even if the Forest Service uses a direct sale to buy one of the largest undeveloped parcels in the town limit, the Ranger District must still complete an assessment before moving forward with the sale. The Alliance would have to pay for that assessment.

“We need to really explore whether the public benefit (of the sale) is to the American public, not just Payson,” said Elam.

She said the land sale presents a “unique situation,” with an existing buyer willing to pay appraised value in a tough real estate market for a project that offers substantial benefit to the community. Moreover, the sale of the land to the Alliance would provide money for the Payson Ranger District to build a new, much bigger visitors center close to the location of the current district office.

In addition, the money would pay for an overhaul of the district’s firefighting facilities. Initially, the Payson Ranger District said it wanted to move its operations to a parcel of land next to the Gila County maintenance yard on the outskirts of Star Valley.

However, the district may shift back to its original plan to build new firefighting facilities on a piece of Payson-owned land near the airport.

The recently concluded cost recovery agreement represents a promise by the Alliance to cover the costs to the Forest Service of reviewing the environmental assessment conducted by consultants hired by the Alliance.

Elam said she hopes the regional and national offices will approve her plan to approve the direct sale without an environmental study on that decision.

Elam said that without the cost recovery agreement with the Alliance, the sale would take much longer to complete due to a crush of major projects competing for the attention of the Payson Ranger District staff.

“We’ve got a lot going on,” said Elam. “We wouldn’t have initiated this sale on our own in the current (real estate) market climate. Without the cost recovery agreement, we can only go so far in spending public money.”

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