A quick look back…
It was a little over 4 years ago that the City of Prescott considered purchasing 80 acres in the Granite Dells area from Mark Wirth. Wirth wanted $4M for the property, which is not in the Prescott City limits. But, the property had lots of historic appeal and it was in a beautiful location. There used to be a swimming hole out there, and a resort.
The Council was unanimous in agreeing that it would be nice to have the historic property preserved.
What the Council was not unanimous about, however, was paying $4M for the property. Actually, the majority of the Council wasn’t willing to put in much more than $500,000 towards the purchase and partnering with other entities.
The Granite Dells Preservation Foundation had about $1.5 million pledged towards the purchase. Dan Campbell, a resident of Prescott spoke about the tourism benefits, and the value to the community. He even presented a letter of support with 2000 signatures.
So, basically, they were able to raise about half the money to purchase the $4M property. But the rest of the money wasn’t raised and the deal fizzled out.
Fast forward to May 8, 2018.
Jason Gisi, CEO of the Arizona Eco Development held a Public Open House regarding a proposed annexation and development in the Granite Dells area. The Open House was held in Prescott City Council Chambers, although it was not an official City meeting.
An estimated 450 people came to attend the meeting - there were so many people that they were standing in the hallways, and sent to other conference rooms with television monitors. Most of the people were with the Save the Dells Political Action Committee (PAC), wearing stickers to identify their allegiance.
The tone of the meeting was polite, but the audience was clearly not convinced this was a good project.
Gisi started out by saying, ""…the intent of the meeting is to hold a voluntary conversation between myself and the public. I understand that there are some folks that are upset, I understand that there are some folks that are emotional. My comment would be that as long as we can maintain a civil dialog, we’ll keep talking."
He showed slides of the acreage and explained that there is a northern section as well as a southern section. The largest areas of concern to the audience were the southern parcels, which includes the Point of Rocks, a well-known historical site.
Some of the details mentioned included:
- Arizona Eco owns a 375 A/F water right in Watson Lake and Granite Creek that supersedes the water rights SRP has to the Verde River. Currently that water is being used to irrigate acres of land. The plan is to give that water to the City of Prescott if the annexation takes place.
- The land is owned free and clear.
- Arizona Eco is generally proposing that a portion of the Point of Rocks could be traded to the City of Prescott in exchange for water. "As we move through that process [of annexation] we will find relative value for assets like water and the Point of Rocks."
- There is also a proposal to trade land at the end of the Airport for water.
- There will be at least 5 public meetings regarding the annexation process.
- The annexation process can take as long as 3 years.
"This doesn’t happen next week. This happens because there is a conversation that occurs in the public, in a transparent way, and folks have the opportunity to weigh in and share their opinions," Gisi explained. "As you have chosen to do tonight. Which frankly, I appreciate. It helps me. Because at the end of the day, there might be good ideas in this room that affect the final configuration of the property if the City of Prescott votes to annex it. And that’s always an 'if'. There’s no guarantee in it."
A lady in the audience, who gave her name as Penny, asked what the Plan B is if the annexation is not approved.
Gisi responded that the easiest thing is to revert to 36 acre subdivisions, where no approval is required from anyone or any governmental board or agency, because it would be allowed under state law. This would also allow septic tanks and independent wells to be drilled, potentially compromising the water table. Gisi used Coyote Springs as an example, where a 36 acre parcel is bringing $450K today.
"I don’t know what a 36 acre parcel close to town is worth, but I know it’s a lot more than $450,000," Gisi said.
Another option would be to look into annexing into the Town of Prescott Valley instead of the City of Prescott, Gisi said. There were quiet rumbles of displeasure from the audience at that option.
Jeri Smith Fornara from the audience stood up and said, "I think you should give back the Point of Rocks, the entire acreage. Because you do have plenty of money." She went on to say that mainly retired people live in Prescott and the jobs aren’t here to support this development. The audience cheered loudly at her words.
Jeri Smith Fornara
Gisi explained that the original owners of the property were the Wilkinson family. They sold the property for approximately $132,000,000, as an owner carry-back to a party that eventually quit making the payments and defaulted on the note. Arizona Eco Development ended up buying the note from the Wilkinson family.
Jeff Martin spoke and expressed his concerns about potential archeological finds in the area. Gisi assured him that as part of the annexation process, an archeological survey would be done. Any artifacts found would be taken care of appropriately and legally.
Questions were also asked about roads, potential hotels or resorts and trails. Gisi patiently answered everything he was asked.
Happy Oasis asked several questions. She lives in Granite Dells, less than 1/4 of a mile away from the proposed project, she said. (Later, when asked, she confirmed that she does not live in the City limits, she lives in the County.)
Oasis said she was hiking recently on a trail and came across 7 antelope. As she was leaving, a group of 4 "rowdy hikers - exuberant..." were coming towards the antelope. "My heart sank. There are too many people on the trails. As a resident of Granite Dells, I have another opinion. I don’t want a regional park, full of people, because there is so much fragility right now with the flora and the fauna… I would rather leave the wildlife alone as much as possible. I don’t want a parking lot on Granite Dells Road filled with hundreds of people climbing all over the rocks and hiking more than they already are… In the last five years, it suddenly became way too popular for those of us that live in the Dells…"
Joe Trudeau is the chairman of the Save the Dells PAC. He thanked Gisi, acknowledging that this Open House was not a required meeting. Save the Dells is advocating that the land be turned into a regional park.
"This is the last chance Prescott will ever have to protect this piece of property," Trudeau said to loud applause. "…it’s important that we save the Granite Dells, in my opinion and in the opinion of the Save the Dells group, that we save all of the Dells."
Trudeau went on to say, "I hope that the City is really ready to listen to the people on this because this is a make-or-break moment for the city’s character, we have an opportunity here to create a well-thought-out park…"
The problem with that statement is that this property is privately owned by Arizona Eco Development. If the City agrees to the annexation, the City can have some say in lot sizes and locations, and even require 25% of the land to be dedicated to open space. But the City cannot force the developer to turn all the privately owned land into a regional park.
"Let’s nurture the possibility that we can create a healthy outdoor recreation-based economy where people are getting outside and bringing their kids outside and being active and reducing our healthcare costs and reducing stress on city services because these parks don’t cost all that much to maintain," Trudeau said. "Jason wants to be fairly compensated, you know he’s a businessman, they invested in the land. This is a time to work out these deals. We’ve got a huge audience right now, if anybody knows the billionaire that wants to help us out and sit down with me and Jason and make something happen, you let me know…"
Four years ago, when a group of people tried to purchase 80 acres in the Granite Dells area, they weren’t even able to raise $4,000,000. This property consists of thousands of acres, and sold at one time for $132,000,000. Can Trudeau and his group really expect to buy out Arizona Eco Development?
"This meeting was called by me because of what I was hearing in the community," Gisi said in closing. "I thought that it’s just time to sit down and start talking so that people aren’t scared of it, they start to understand it, and they can engage."
One of the final comments was by Sandra Hanson. "I hope that you understand, most of the people that are here today do not want anything to do with the development… I want to know when this is over how rich are you going to be, because I make $12,000 a year and I sustain a home in this community barely and I can’t even imagine how much money you need and I’m very sorry to come at you hard, but this room does not want your development at all. So work with the Conservancy, work with the City, find a way that you can make money in another way than taking our Dells away from us."
But, it’s not a question of "...taking our Dells away from us." It's not "their" Dells. It almost seemed as if those in the room were the ones who actually want to be the takers.
Afterwards, one attendee commented that he was offended that so many people thought it was acceptable to tell someone what they could do with their own property.
Because, according to Gisi, the Dells are the property - owned entirely, free and clear - of Arizona Eco Development. The property will be developed. The real question is whether it will be developed as part of the City of Prescott with open space and trails; or in a way that ends up being potentially more restrictive and ecologically destructive.