A protracted land dispute that has stymied Apache Junction’s growth for nearly a decade is about to be resolved, state Land Department and Maricopa County officials say.
A 19,000-acre section of state trust land south of the city has been tied up in a legal battle between the Land Department and Maricopa County, which was granted a flood control easement on the property in the mid-1960s to maintain three massive flood retention walls.
The Land Department has been arguing since 2001 that the easement is invalid because Maricopa County paid nothing for the land, despite laws requiring that it be purchased at fair market value to generate money for state schools. But state and county officials said last week that an agreement is being negotiated.
"I think it’s going to work," Maricopa County public works director Mike Ellegood said of the agreement, which would include relinquishing the easement and possibly contracting with the Land Department to maintain the retention walls for a fee. "We’ll continue to take care of them, and we think we’re the bestequipped to do it."
Although the land is in Pinal County, Maricopa County officials took on the responsibility of maintaining the retention walls because they protect the far East Valley from flooding in the event of heavy runoff from the mountains.
Ellegood said whatever happens with the easement, some entity will have to maintain the walls, which have decayed over the years and need repair.
"Nobody wants to abandon the dams and put Mesa in harm’s way," he said.
The easement dispute has prevented Apache Junction from annexing much of the land, which the city has been trying to incorporate since 1996.
Although no specific date was given for reaching an agreement, city officials were encouraged by the news of negotiations, saying the area is vital for growth and prosperity.
"It’s everything to us — I’ll be honest," Apache Junction Vice Mayor R.E. Eck said. "We’ve been waiting for that land to the south to open up so we can become the city of the 21st century."
Eck said city officials envision a mix of residential, commercial and industrial uses for the area, and that Apache Junction can’t expand in any other direction.
Once the easement issue is settled, Land Department deputy director Richard Hubbard said the land would be available for Apache Junction to annex.
In addition, developers would be able to buy land from the State Land Trust, which generates money for state education programs.
Hubbard added that legal changes his department is pitching to the Legislature would help Apache Junction properly develop the area.
"The tools for planning that are in the state trust land reforms would be perfect for this area," he said.