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Utah schools may finally see a long-term benefit as a contested sale of school trust land near St. George approaches a settlement.

The 1989 sale of 2,400 acres of land to St. George businessman James Doyle led to a lawsuit by state education interests who said the State Division of Lands sold the land for a fraction of its value.The plaintiffs also said the sale was unconstitutional. A complex series of events preceding the sale gave Doyle preferential rights to purchase the land. A report by the Legislature's auditor general and an opinion by the Utah Attorney General's Office said the statute under which the land was sold did not meet constitutional muster.

Money earned from the use or sale of school trust lands goes into a permanent account and the interest supports education. The sale of the land to Doyle for approximately $1.1 million robbed schools of the expected income that should have come from the land, school officials said.

The lawsuit, filed first by the Utah Education Association and then taken over by the State Office of Education, will be dropped if agreements are reached.

A draft settlement could give the trust an additional $3 million or more if Doyle is able to sell or trade the land, said Margaret Bird, school trust specialist for the State Office of Education.

The proposed agreement would give the trust 30 percent of the first $10 million Doyle received from the sale of the St. George land or of lands he received in a trade. The schools' share then would drop to 12.5 percent on Doyle's additional earnings on the land, if any.

The Washington County land abuts the Green Springs Golf Course in Washington and is potentially very valuable for development. But a portion of the land has been identified as critical habitat for the endangered desert tortoise and further development has been barred by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Before the service declared a moratorium on development, some development already had occurred. Doyle sold a parcel of the land to Deseret Mutual Investment Co. to get money for the down payment on the tract.

Doyle proposes to sell portions of the land to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and/or trade it for BLM land in Nevada. Ted Stephenson, BLM project manager, said the bureau has approximately $2 million remaining in this fiscal year's budget for tortoise land acquisition, and more money will be available in the coming fiscal year. He said the agency is interested in acquiring part of Doyle's land, if the lawsuit can be settled.

The BLM has been provided funding to acquire tortoise habitat to create a 61,000-acre preserve to protect the desert creature.

Final details of the settlement with Doyle have not been worked out, but a resolution is expected soon, said Bird.