The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is exploring the possibility of trading federal land in northeast Mesa for private property in central Arizona, but the move is causing a stir in Mesa.
Some residents fear the land swap would allow a developer to bulldoze a scenic mountain near their homes. Others fear the move could open the door to substandard housing, which they said would lower property values near upscale communities. Still others are angry that BLM is leasing the federal land to a mining operation.
Swapping the land is just an idea at this point, said Teri Raml, office manager for the BLM Phoenix field office. The agency will decide in 30 days how to proceed, she said.
BLM officials said exchanging land is a common and important way for the agency to acquire valuable public lands.
Under the proposal, BLM would trade about 200 acres of federal land in northeast Mesa for 200 acres of private property called Horseshoe Ranch, located within the Agua Fria National Monument off Interstate 17 about 40 miles north of Phoenix. The owner recently put the cattle ranch on the market for $3.2 million.
If the trade is successful, Horseshoe Ranch would obtain national monument status and fall under BLM oversight, shielding it from possible development. The federal land in Mesa would become the private property of Dale Longbrake, owner of Red Mountain Mining Inc. The company mines and sells decorative landscaping rock on the land.
The deal hinges on Longbrake buying Horseshoe Ranch and trading it to BLM.
Longbrake said he has talked several times with the cattle ranch owner, who likes the idea. Longbrake approached BLM officials with the land swap idea earlier this year.
Longbrake’s mining operation covers about 90 acres of the federal land, located in Mesa’s planning area. The rest is open desert. The mining operation has been there since 1971. BLM officials said the property was targeted for trade in a 1989 agency plan.
"It is completely isolated from other BLM lands," said Janelle Smith, a BLM spokeswoman. "It presents a real management challenge."
Longbrake said he would continue mining the Mesa property for five to seven years, then partner with a developer to build custom homes, some with values exceeding $1 million.
Homeowners in Red Mountain Ranch, which borders the federal land to the south, were upset after BLM officials outlined the idea at a meeting last week. More than 100 residents attended. Home prices in the community range from $150,000 to more than $1 million.
"I think the best thing for us is if it just remains federal land," said Gerry Bush, a real estate agent who owns a home in Red Mountain Ranch.
She fears that if homes are built on the federal property, a developer would level part or all of the mountain just north of her home to improve views. The 4,100-foot mountain, informally known as Sienna Hill, sits on the federal land between the mining operation and Red Mountain Ranch.
Bush said it’s probably inevitable that the federal land will be developed, and houses are better than a mining operation. She said a lot of people would probably drop their opposition if L ongbrake agreed to adhere to Mesa’s housing guidelines for the Sonoran Desert area and promised not to alter the mountain.
Longbrake said he has no intention of leveling the mountain because he wants to build homes on the north side of it, where the view is striking. His crews have mined several areas of mountain, leaving flat spaces for homes to be built. Longbrake said he intends to build homes at the foot of the mountain, where mined rock is stored today.
"I’m trying to enhance the value of the property instead of trying to make it a scarred piece of government land, like so many other mining operations have," Longbrake said.
Horseshoe Ranch is one of a few privately-owned tracts in the 71,000-acre Agua Fria National Monument. The monument contains two mesas, the Agua Fria River canyon and prehistoric Indian archeological sites considered important to the history of the American Southwest. BLM oversees federal land in the monument.
"It really is an important area for resource management," said Kathy Pedrick, BLM manager of the monument.
The BLM field office in Phoenix oversees about 3.5 million acres of federal land in Arizona. BLM’s mission is to find the highest and best use for public lands, officials said.