For all his life, it was Fred Ruskin’s dream to complete the largest land exchange in Arizona history and consolidate his family’s huge northern Arizona ranch into a contiguous private parcel.
Now that dream is in jeopardy because of a different dream of building a wind farm on the vast grasslands of the Yavapai Ranch. The wind farm gets a public hearing in front of the Yavapai County Planning and Zoning Commission on Wednesday.
The 100,000-acre ranch, located about 30 miles north of Prescott, is a massive checkerboard of the Ruskin land and the Prescott National Forest.
Despite extensive controversy, especially over Forest Service land in the Verde Valley that would become private, Ruskin finally won congressional and presidential approval of the Yavapai Ranch Land Exchange in November 2005.
“We’ve been talking about this exchange literally longer than I’ve been alive,” Ruskin told The Daily Courier when then-President George W. Bush signed the exchange into law. His father started the process, and “I’ve been working on it really hard for 10 years.”
The federal government saw it as a major opportunity to open up public access to as many as 70,000 consolidated acres north of Prescott.
Ruskin saw it as an opportunity to develop most of the remaining 30,000 acres into a planned community – something that was impossible with the checkerboard ownership – while making some money for his family by selling other parcels he acquired, including summer camps around Prescott.
All that remained were the details of appraising and surveying the land to make sure the exchange was a fair value.
At one point, the exchange was delayed while Ruskin lined up SunCor as the subdivision developer, but that fell through in 2009.
Since then attempts at establishing the appraisal process have mired down to the point that the Ruskins now are suing the U.S. Forest Service. The suit demands that the Ruskins get to hire the land appraisers.
The Forest Service counters that the land exchange is too important to hand over to private interests. Instead, the Forest Service is offering to let the Ruskins reject the appraisers that the Forest Service chooses with Ruskin input.
Wind farm idea
In the midst of this lawsuit, Ruskin contracted with the largest wind power company in the country called NextEra Energy Resources to build a series of 81 wind turbines that are 436 feet tall across a 37,000-acre swath of the land that the Forest Service is supposed to acquire through the exchange. The plan also includes solar panels. The facilities are located on 19 of the 33 sections in the exchange.
The wind farm would be located on prime pronghorn habitat that tends to be located on private property, especially in this region where much of the habitat is now covered with homes.
The Forest Service 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, said Ken Simeral, lands staff officer on the Prescott Forest.
The Forest Service already has spent nearly $1 million on the land exchange, he said.
Ruskin said the land exchange still could take place, but Prescott National Forest Supervisor Betty Mathews said that could be a challenge if the 37,000-acre wind and solar farm is removed from the land exchange.
Ruskin won’t say whether he wants the land in or out of the exchange. He wants a county decision on the wind farm first. “I’m not ruling out doing the exchange,” he said.
The wind farm is likely to bring the family millions of dollars. The landowners of a NextEra wind farm with 62 turbines near Williams are getting $7 million over 25 years, NextEra Project Director Matthew Gomes said.
Ruskin said he also is working on a new housing development plan to replace one the county approved years ago. If he develops homes without the land exchange, the 50,000 acres of existing public lands will be landlocked by homes and riddled with new access roads.
County, state support
At least one county supervisor who will decide on the wind farm application, Carol Springer, has already written to the Forest Service expressing support for it. So have the three state legislators who represent this region. Their letter doesn’t mention the land exchange issue.
State Transportation Board Chair Bill Feldmeier is working on the Yavapai Wind Energy Center project for NextEra. He also is a former Yavapai County supervisor. He bought 40 acres of the Yavapai Ranch from the Ruskins.
While the wind farm would create only seven to 10 jobs outside the six- to nine-month construction period, NextEra estimates it would produce an estimated $3.8 million in property tax revenues for the county and Seligman school district. Numerous Seligman residents have signed petitions supporting the project.
If NextEra gets county approval for the wind farm, it can’t actually build it until it gets easements from the U.S. Forest Service for roads and utility lines, explained Steve Mauk, county Development Services director.
But the Forest Service already has denied the special use permit because the land exchange law doesn’t allow new encumbrances on the lands after November 2005, Forest Service officials said.
To add the wind farm and keep the property in the land exchange, Ruskin would need special approval from the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Mathews said. He hasn’t asked for that.
With all the complications, NextEra is clearly working on an ambitious timeline that requires power to be delivered to Salt River Project’s Phoenix customers by the end of 2012.
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