Will the remote Yavapai Ranch turn into a huge subdivision, the state’s largest wind farm, or a cutting-edge astronomical observatory?
Will the state’s largest land exchange finally become a reality so the 50,000 acres of public lands landlocked by the ranch can be consolidated into a single huge swath of pine forest and grasslands that will forever remain a place where the antelope roam? Or will all those acres become permanently landlocked by homes and riddled with access roads?
The answer – or answers – remains up in the air as 2012 comes to a close.
It’s mostly up to ranch owner Fred Ruskin, a retired Paradise Valley dentist. He has made at least one decision this year, and that was to try to keep all his options open. The Yavapai County Board of Supervisors helped make sure he could do that, or at least two of the three supervisors did.
Congress and the U.S. president approved the land exchange back in 2005 after Ruskin and his father spent much of their adult life trying to make the exchange a reality. The exchange would put about 70,000 acres of the land into the Prescott National Forest, with Ruskin getting about 30,000 acres plus other more expensive lands across northern Arizona.
The 51,000-acre ranch is located about 35 miles north of Prescott along Williamson Valley Road. It is surrounded by 36-acre home sites, another huge ranch and the Prescott National Forest including a wilderness area.
The 640-acre sections of the ranch are laid out in a perfect checkerboard pattern with the Prescott National Forest, making it basically impossible for the Forest Service to manage.
After filing a lawsuit against the Forest Service in 2010 to try to force the agency to let him choose the appraiser who would value the lands, Ruskin officially dropped out of the land exchange in May through a letter to the Forest Service.
In the midst of his Forest Service lawsuit, Ruskin contracted with the largest wind power company in the country called NextEra Energy Resources to build a series of 81 lighted wind turbines that are 436 feet tall across a 37,000-acre swath of the land that the Forest Service was supposed to acquire through the exchange. The plan also includes solar panels.
The facilities would be located on 19 of the 33 sections in the exchange, including grasslands that are prime pronghorn antelope habitat.
Forest Service officials said they didn’t know about the wind farm plans until NextEra applied for a special use permit to build roads and power lines across the Prescott National Forest. The Forest Service denied the easements because that would have violated the terms of the land exchange.
Series of county approvals
Despite requests to wait until a new five-man Board of Supervisors is seated in January, the supervisors granted all Ruskin’s requests for wind farm and subdivision approvals late this year.
The supervisors first approved NextEra’s wind farm plan in the fall of 2011, but Ruskin let the one-year conditional use permit expire. He came back to the county for a long extension. NextEra officials were noticeably absent, and the company did not return Courier phone calls about why they appear to be out of the picture.
The county supervisors granted Ruskin’s request this month for another four years to submit a final site plan instead of the current one year; five years instead of two years to get building permits; and eight years to get a certificate of compliance instead of five years.
Supervisor Chip Davis of the Verde Valley voted against it after trying to add a stipulation requiring Ruskin to improve the nearby Williamson Valley Road, saying transporting the huge wind tower components to the construction site would beat up the county road.
Neighbor Cody Lundin, a local outdoor survival instructor and star of the Dual Survival TV show on the Discovery Channel, sent a long letter of opposition.
Lundin said he bought his property for its “remoteness, dark skies, quiet and wildlife.” He expressed concern about a decrease in property values, unfair tax advantages for wind power facilities, and adverse affects on wildlife and their habitat. Studies have shown wind farms kill birds and bats, he noted.
“Hopefully the board will wise up to the Ruskin shotgun technique of seeing what will ‘stick’ at the expense of others,” Lundin added.
He was referring to Ruskin’s other recent application for 12,500 homes and 96 acres of commercial development at the Yavapai Ranch.
The Board of Supervisors approved that request in November.
Ruskin hired former county supervisor Bill Feldmeier, then a member of the State Transportation Board, and former Prescott National Forest lands staff officer Steve Sams, to represent him in the county hearings.
Sams used to represent the Forest Service in the land exchange negotiations. At one point in the county hearings he told county officials that Prescott Forest Supervisor Betty Mathews had a “misunderstanding” of county road standards when she asked the county to stick to its standards.
Mathews later confirmed she had no misunderstanding, adding, “Steve Sams should not be speaking for me.”
Opponents voiced concerns about water use and roads, saying the proposal is vague on these plans. Part of the ranch is located in the Big Chino Aquifer that supplies most of the base flow for the Upper Verde River, but the proposal includes no information about water use.
The ranch is one of the finalists for the Cherenkov Telescope Array observatory, too. Observatory representatives told The Daily Courier they didn’t know Ruskin was seeking approval for thousands of homes.
“All these things contradict each other,” speaker Amanda Fenton complained at the planning commission hearing. “Obviously nobody wants to build their dream home next to a wind tower.”
Again, Davis was the only board member to oppose that plan.
“This is the biggest county giveaway I’ve ever seen,” Davis said. “If it doesn’t just jump out at you that this is crazy, I don’t know what to tell you.”
The ranch could end up with twice as many homes through lot splits under the current two-acre zoning, said Supervisor Carol Springer, who said she couldn’t understand the opposition.
Supervisor Tom Thurman said he was voting yes because he doesn’t like the alternative: lot splits.
“I don’t see what the difference is from lot splits,” Davis countered.
Requests for requirements in the county approval from other government agencies, such as road improvements and stipulations to protect wildlife, were largely ignored by the supervisors.
“It is clear that the resident pronghorn population will be adversely impacted by this proposed development,” a letter from the Arizona Game and Fish Department stated. “The severity of that adverse impact could be great.”
Instead, the supervisors waived their own road improvement requirements against the advice of the Public Works Department. They did require dust abatement.
The supervisors gave Ruskin an extra three years to submit a final site plan with more details about his proposal.
Expressing concerns about emergency and homeowner access during poor weather, Davis wondered when the county has ever approved commercial development accessed by primitive dirt roads.
“We never had an application like this before,” senior planner Tammy DeWitt responded.
Davis accused Ruskin of using the county to just increase the value of his property.
“I think we’re being used as pawns in the land trade process,” he added.
Thurman defended his vote this week, saying the approval meant half as many homes and reduced impacts to the Verde River Watershed. And he cited his stipulation requiring wildlife-friendly fencing.
“I’m a pro-growth guy,” he added.
Still, Thurman has repeatedly expressed support for reviving the land exchange.
“This checkerboarding in my opinion is disgusting,” Thurman said during one of the hearings, especially next to a wilderness area. “I think it’s a travesty to the public.”
This week he said he plans to try to get the land exchange discussion back on the table in January.
Mathews said this week that she hasn’t given up on the land exchange, either.