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Bill advances to clear up Forest Service-Coconino boundary error

Coconino County Supervisor Matt Ryan said the plan to let property owners buy their land back from the Forest Service is a compromise that will help return the properties to their owners -- which is the most important thing, he said. (Photo by Uriel Garcia/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON -- Congress is one step closer to fixing a property dispute over the boundary of Coconino National Forest, which cuts through 26 neighboring properties as a result of a 50-year-old surveying error.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved a House bill Thursday that would let the affected property owners repurchase their land from the government, a total of 2.67 acres, for a combined $20,000.

The bill is "a bad deal" but is better than no deal at all, said Esther Stewart, a homeowner who will have to pay about $4,000 to buy back a house she already paid full price for in 1990. Stewart said she will have to pay the most out of any of the group.

The problem started in 2007, when the Bureau of Land Management surveyed the forest's boundary and realized that the previous survey, from 1960, was wrong. When the bureau moved the boundary to its correct position, it wound up running through people's properties in Mountainaire, a community near Flagstaff.

Stewart said she woke up one morning in August 2007 and found a sign in front of her yard declaring it part of the national forest. She said she had talked to some Bureau of Land Management employees who were surveying the area that summer, but did not know they would move the forest's boundary into the middle of some people's homes.

"I had given them cookies and iced tea," Stewart said. "I'd like my cookies back now, anyway."

Coconino County Supervisor Matt Ryan said it became a bigger problem when some Mountainaire homeowners wanted to sell their property but could not find buyers because of the confusion over the property line. For people with limited income, that is a serious financial burden, Ryan said.

"These are lower- and middle-income, working-class communities," Ryan said. "It's not as if they have a huge cash flow sitting out there."

Stewart said she could afford to buy back her share of the disputed land, but that she had savings and was better off financially than most of the people living in the area.

"Some of these people are downright poor," she said.

While Stewart is not thrilled with the buy-back deal, Ryan said the bill is a compromise between property owners and the Forest Service and that it is important to find some way of returning the properties to the homeowners.

The latest bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff, and Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, is their third attempt at solving the problem. Kirkpatrick introduced a bill in 2010 that failed to make it out of committee and Gosar's bill in 2012 passed the House but died in the Senate. The current bill still needs to go before the full Senate for a vote.

"After years of headaches and hassles, these homeowners are closer than ever to a resolution," Kirkpatrick said in a statement Thursday.

Coconino National Forest spokesman Dean Jones said the Forest Service supports the bill and wants to make sure the property owners can keep their homes.

"We want them to have their properties back," Jones said. "That's the important thing."

The 25 homeowners are still paying county taxes on the 26 affected properties, despite the fact that the land is technically owned by the federal government, Ryan said. He said the county decided to continue taxing the properties and performing services like road maintenance, but that property owners have the option of asking the county assessor for an exemption from the tax.

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