The “watershed” Forest Service approval of the direct sale of 253 acres for a university campus has unleashed a fury of pent-up activity on the part of the Rim Country Educational Alliance.
“We are elated that we’ve received this approval,” noted Steve Drury, RCEA chairman. “This is a major milestone in our process to acquire the land we’ve envisioned for the campus.”
Stalled for six months by the wait for the Forest Service approval of a direct sale, backers of the effort to build a phased, 6,000-student campus here this week released a timeline to take them through the end of the year.
Backers also slated a meeting this week with representatives of Arizona State University, to make sure that agreements negotiated late last year still hold, now that the Forest Service has promised to sell the land at a price established by an independent appraiser.
“This is a watershed event,” said Drury. “What it really does is to enable us to take the steps necessary to get it closed — this is tangible evidence at the highest level that the Forest Service has embraced the direct sale.”
He said he anticipates construction of “offsite infrastructure” like sewer lines, water mains and electrical power connections will start this fall, with construction of the campus starting around the first of the year after transfer of the title. Just hooking the site up to the Northern Gila County Sanitary District system could cost $6 million.
The Alliance has already started the appraisal process. The appraisal of a 22-acre parcel on the other side of the highway more than a year ago set a value of about $25,000 per acre, which would make the land south of the highway worth about $6 million, said Drury.
With the sale promised by the Forest Service, the Alliance must nail down the promised $400 million in financing. The appraisal will also determine the cost of the land, probably in the next month. That’s crucial to working out the estimated costs so the Alliance can give ASU a final lease price, said Drury.
Meanwhile, the agreement with the Forest Service also assures the project can move forward no matter what archaeologists find when they look more closely into a scattering of prehistoric artifacts found in the course of an environmental assessment last year.
Drury said although consultants found suspected pottery shards and other traces of ancient occupations in 11 spots on the 253 acres, only one seemed potentially important. That site lies in an apparent shelter between two big boulders on Whisper Ridge, which overlooks Tyler Parkway. Drury said the Alliance will never build on the steep hilltop, so the site will remain safe.
Nonetheless, the Forest Service wants the Alliance to put up a $500,000 bond to ensure the excavation of the site. Consultants initially said it would cost $225,000 to excavate and preserve all 11 initially identified sites — but the cost may be much lower if only one site needs excavation.
Nonetheless, putting up the bond will guarantee the Forest Service can fulfill the law requiring protection of archaeological sites in federal land sales, even if the consultants don’t finish the work before construction starts elsewhere on the parcel.
Drury said the agreement to provide a bond to cover the archaeological work has decoupled that issue from the sale of the land. Some months ago, backers of the campus plan feared they would have to abandon their preferred site and find private land because of the problems posed by the discovery of the pottery shards.
The approval last week of the Sales Implementation Strategy (SIS) set in motion a chain of events that could take as much as six more months before the Alliance actually takes title of the property. That includes several mandatory waiting periods for possible appeals of key decisions. For instance, Tonto National Forest Supervisor Neil Bosworth says he’ll now quickly certify the findings of the environmental assessment, which will trigger a 45-day appeals period.
However, settling the archaeological issue and the Forest Service promise to sell the land means the Alliance can now conclude its deal with ASU and secure financing, said Drury.
“Prior to this decision, we didn’t know if the Forest Service would sell it to us, even though we were pouring money into the site,” said Drury. He estimated backers have already invested about $500,000 in the site, including the privately raised cost of the environmental assessment. “So this is huge. It’s a milestone that few people will really appreciate.”
Alliance board member Jim Lyon said, “this is the first time we’ve had anything approaching a predictable schedule” for completing the project.
Drury said the Alliance will not have to split the campus between the two sides of the highway. At one point, the Alliance as a backup plan obtained an option to buy 22 acres from Gila County, two acres from Payson and more than 60 acres from several private landowners on the north side of the highway.
For a time, the Alliance considered building the 1,000-student first phase of the college north of the highway because of the delays in buying the Forest Service land. Now the campus will go south of the highway. The nearly 90 acres on the north side will provide space for a research park and other spin-off facilities.
Drury said a national hotel chain also remains interested in building a major conference hotel on a hilltop site within the boundaries of the Forest Service land.
He said preliminary conversations with investors suggest that the financing also remains available at a low interest rate.
“You need to let your readers know that this is still a horribly complicated situation,” said Drury, “and we have to take it one small bite at a time. We have waited for the Forest Service for 3.5 years, but we now know that we are the buyer and that has allowed us to go forward on several fronts.”