December 11, 2011

Yavapai Land Trade: Gridlock or checkmate?

Steve Ayers, Staff Reporter, The Bugle, 10 December 2011

CAMP VERDE – The Yavapai Ranch Land Exchange, which was to have been the state’s largest land swap ever, affecting communities across the north half, remains deeply mired in differences between the two parties.

One issue is already in court; one may end up there. In the meantime discussions have come to a halt because one party won’t write a letter to the other.

Currently the trade is the subject of federal court suit because the two sides don’t agree on how to appraise the acreage, or who will make the appraisal.

Ranch owner Fred Ruskin is adamant that he does not want an appraiser chosen by the U.S. Forest Service from the list of appraisers they usually do business with. The Forest Service is adamant that it chooses the appraiser, and Ruskin’s only responsibility is to say yea or nay.

The only part of the appraisal issue they agree on is that it will likely be years before the case makes it to court.

Meanwhile, Ruskin continues to move forward with a wind generation project on the west side of the ranch, spread out across 3,000 acres that could potentially be taken in trade by the Forest Service.

The Forest Service does not embrace the idea, and insist that they won’t even discuss the matter until Ruskin sends them a letter notifying them of his intent.

According to Ken Simeral with the Prescott National Forest, the building of the wind farm puts an encumbrance on the property, and in order to encumber the land Ruskin must notify the Forest Service.

“If we decided to build something on our land we would have to notify Mr. Ruskin and the reverse is true if he wants to encumber his lands. It gives each of us a chance to respond and say if we want to have that property as part of the trade, or do we want to do the exchange at all,” Simeral says.

“Our intention for the west side was for antelope habitat and open space for recreation. Now you throw in 400-foot wind turbines and you’ve got something entirely different.”

In addition, the Forest Service insists that Ruskin needs a special use permit before he can string the electrical lies for the wind turbines.

But because Ruskin hasn’t sent the Secretary of Agriculture a letter regarding the possible encumbrance, the Forest Service is refusing to begin addressing the use permit.

Ruskin says he doesn’t have to send a letter to the Secretary of Agriculture seeking their approval for the wind farm and they can’t deny him access for the electrical lines. He already has those rights.

“The legislation doesn’t say you can’t have new access and encumbrances on the west side. What it says is the federal government doesn’t have to accept what I put on it. It separately states that all prior rights continue and access was a prior right on the forest,” Ruskin says.

“The federal government can’t tie up land for perpetuity with something like the exchange legislation. That defines a taking.”

Ruskin has given the job of dealing with the Forest Service to the company that plans to build the wind farm, NextEra Energy.

“The negotiations have been handled by the wind company. It’s above my pay grade,” he says.

But Simeral says that won’t do from the Forest Service’s perspective.

“He has used NextEra to run the ball. And we are telling NextEra that they are not the ones we are dealing with. Any letter has to come from Ruskin,” he says.

The stalemate could become checkmate if Ruskin ultimately decides to take the Forest Service to court again, this time for refusing to let him carry out his project.

“I’m hopeful of still doing a land exchange, but to keep the possibility of that alive we have to be able to go ahead with the wind project,” he says. “We are hanging in but to a large extent is depends on if the wind project goes forward.”

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