The Rim Country Educational Alliance (SLE) continues to push the purchase of 260 acres from the U.S. Forest Service for a university campus — but also is doing a comparative analysis of other privately owned parcels.
The Alliance and Arizona State University sought the analysis when the sale of the Forest Service site seemed stalled on unexpected problems getting a Forest Service appraisal of the preferred site — a big chunk of heavily forested land between the southern extension of Tyler Parkway (Rim Club Drive) and the Payson Ranger Station.
However, the Forest Service subsequently agreed to use a private appraiser, based on a request for proposals that will go out this week. At one point, the Forest Service warned that pursuing a conventional appraisal could cost $300,000 and take six or eight months. But the alternative approach will likely cost more like $24,000 and take a matter of weeks once the Forest Service approves a private appraiser, said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.
The Alliance’s decision to work up a development cost comparison involving several parcels sent off a round of rumors that the Alliance had abandoned the Forest Service-owned parcel due to the potential delay in getting an appraisal.
However, university backers this week insisted that the 260-acre parcel on the border with Star Valley remains the preferred site.
Alliance chairman Steve Drury said, “Prudent business practice dictates that the board should explore and evaluate backup plans in the event that the primary plans or objectives become untenable or impractical, including alternative site planning.
“The fact that a backup plan is being thoroughly investigated should not be interpreted as a sign that the board has abandoned their primary, preferred plans.”
Evans said he’s confident that the analysis will continue to favor support for moving forward with the Forest Service site.
The 260-acre preferred site, combined with nearly 100 acres of private land across the highway the Alliance has an option to buy, provides plenty of room for a roughly 80-acre campus and all of the hoped-for spin-off developments, which will provide money to keep the cost of tuition low.
Evans said the prospective developer of the campus facilities has undertaken the analysis. “They’re evaluating it — in consultation with ASU. There’s a lot going on. They are doing everything they can in terms of looking at backup sites” and keeping options open for the Alliance.
However, Evans said that so far the Forest Service site retains key advantages. “I think we’re still making progress with the Forest Service. The challenge is that you’ve got a lot of people who have a little bit of understanding of what has to happen — and they extrapolate from that little bit of data as to what it means.
“From the outset, the challenge has been how do we secure a large enough parcel to produce the revenue stream that makes a low tuition possible?”
The creation of the separate legal entity gives the Alliance board effective control of land use and zoning within the SLE’s boundaries.
The SLE can also retain the property taxes generated within the boundary, although it may distribute those taxes as payments to other entities like school districts. Sales taxes generated within the SLE are distributed normally.
The SLE retains ownership of the land and the facilities, so it collects lease payments within the zone. The lease payments from the spin-off businesses and the student dorm profits essentially subsidize the tuition at far less than other state university campuses.
A national hotel chain has said it would build a 500-room conference hotel on a hilltop location on the Forest Service site, but might not remain involved if the campus shifts to another location, said Evans.
In addition, the preferred location provides room for dorms, an incubation center to turn university research into commercial products, a research park, student-oriented businesses, a solar power generating plant and other spin-offs.
Alliance members have investigated several other privately owned parcels, most of them closer to 100 acres in size. Those alternative locations have various potential advantages — like the possibility they would generate enough extra business to brighten the commercial and retail prospects nearby. But in addition to the smaller acreage, the alternative sites have various problems of their own — like potentially expensive flood plain problems and road access.
“For these other parcels,” said Evans, “you can’t just go in and start building the campus. You have to go through the whole comprehensive planning process (flood plains, roads, infrastructure, etc.) and none of that has been done to date.”
Arizona State University remains actively involved in the planning process, said Evans. However, ASU has said it won’t lock in its involvement publicly until the Alliance has secured the land.
That explains the intense frustration with the time-consuming Forest Service process.
Drury, chairman of the separate legal entity set up jointly by Payson and Star Valley to build the campus and related facilities, said “although progress is frustratingly slow, those close to the project continue to be optimistic as the project continues to move forward.”
Although Congress earmarked the land for sale 12 years ago, the three-year-long effort to buy the Forest Service parcel has stoked frustrations, as the Rim Country economy continues to languish.
The community had to raise nearly $190,000 to pay the Forest-Service-required environmental assessment of the property this past year.
The assessment found no endangered species or other concerns and only a scattering of pottery fragments. The fragments and other remains hinted at seasonal use of the site either by Apache or Mogollon people who occupied the area for 1,000 years before vanishing mysteriously in the 1400s.
But the Forest Service said its regulations would require a more extensive excavation to make sure the pottery scatters didn’t indicate a buried village or something more extensive. The Alliance ultimately got around the potential for another months-long delay by agreeing to put up a $500,000 bond and signing an agreement to fully investigate the sites. As a result, the Alliance has a process in place to buy the land even as the archaeological work continues.
But like a topping out on a false summit, another hurdle emerged in first winning Forest Service approval of a direct sale based on an appraisal rather than an auction. The Forest Service approved the direct sale after a long process. But that also proved a false summit of sorts as the Alliance confronted the Forest Service rules for appraisals.
The Alliance now had to cope with complex Forest Service rules on appraising property — especially important in a direct sale. The criminal trial of former District 1 Congressman Rick Renzi for improperly trying to influence a federal land trade underscored the concerns.
The Forest Service regulations require a certified Forest Service appraiser to determine the value of the property, but all of the appraisers in the southwestern region had recently retired. The rules barred bringing in an appraiser from another region.
Fortunately, Tonto National Forest officials in the Payson Ranger District under the leadership of District Ranger Angie Elam found a provision in the regulations that in some cases allows the use of a government-qualified appraiser. That should dramatically reduce the cost and time required for an appraisal, with the speed of completion one of the criteria for picking an appraiser.
Evans said the federal government shutdown forced another delay.
“We are doing everything we can in terms of moving forward with the Forest Service site while also looking at potential backup sites. Nothing has popped up in my mind that says we can get it done quickly and get it done as well” on the other possible sites, he said.