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A sweet deal on land?

Bill could mean $50 million for Utah speculator

SHARE A sweet deal on land?

A controversial southern Utah land speculator and contributor to Rep. Jim Hansen's re-election bids stands to reap at least $15 million, perhaps as much as $50 million, through federal legislation recently introduced by Hansen.

James Doyle, owner of Environmental Land Technologies, has been locked in an ongoing dispute with the federal government over the value of 1,550 acres of land he owns around St. George. These lands are being sought by the federal government to help preserve the endangered desert tortoise.

Late last month Hansen introduced in Congress HR4721, which calls for a $15 million initial payment to Doyle, followed by additional payments once fair market value is determined, plus holding costs and interest back to 1996 when Doyle's dispute with the federal government began. Doyle has maintained the lands are worth far more than what the government has heretofore offered.

When the checks are all written, the legislation could direct the federal government to pay Doyle perhaps $45 million for the land, plus five years' interest on that amount.

The $15 million is simply a down payment, said Allen Freemyer, staff director of Hansen's Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands and the one who drafted the legislation.

"The $15 million is to allow Doyle to maintain his current obligations on the property," Freemyer said, adding "the values on his property are much greater than $15 million."

Freemyer said there is no tie between political contributions from the Doyle family and the introduction of the legislation. Hansen has been working on the Doyle dispute for at least eight years, he said.

It was Hansen who successfully attached a rider to an omnibus parks bill that specified that landowners in Washington County would be paid market value for their lands as if the property did not have endangered species on it. Previously, the value of lands being acquired by the government had been greatly diminished, and in some cases they were valueless, because they were habitat to endangered species and therefore not developable.

In other words, lands in the St. George area that were worth $200 to $300 an acre because desert tortoises made them undevelopable were suddenly worth $10,000 to $20,000 an acre as prime residential and commercial properties.

"This is really a sweet deal for the state and for Jim Doyle, and it's a bad deal for the American public," said Janine Blaeloch with the Western Land Exchange Project, a Seattle-based watchdog group that has been critical of the high prices being paid to Washington County landowners.

But Tim Anderson, Doyle's attorney, said the deal is a good first step toward breaking a longstanding stalemate over how much the land is worth.

"Jim is 62 years old. He was 44 when he started this deal," Anderson said. "It is fair compensation for someone who has been negatively impacted by the environmental policy of the federal government for a major portion of his professional life. It tells them (the federal government land managers) enough is enough; do the deal."

Under provisions of the bill, the title to the disputed lands would pass to the U.S. government with the probability the lands would be appraised and the balance paid. It is not a perfect solution, "but at least it creates a certainty of finality that doesn't exist in the current environment," Anderson said.

"Jim Doyle has been a patient citizen who has allowed the federal government to buy and exchange out small property owners," Freemyer said, adding Hansen has worked hard to get all private landowners justly compensated and to complete the desert tortoise preserve.

The irony of Doyle's financial problems with the lands is that he originally purchased 2,400 acres of state lands in 1990 for about $330 an acre under provisions of a 1988 law that allowed existing lease holders of school trust lands to have a "preference" in the purchase of those lands. That law was later deemed unconstitutional, and Doyle agreed to pay the state an additional $1.1 million, less about $290,000 in interest.

In 1993, the Utah Education Association sued the state, alleging the state's share, which goes into a permanent trust for Utah schools, should have been $10 million, not the $1 million agreed upon. To settle the case, Doyle agreed to pay the state 30 percent of any proceeds from the sale of the lands up to $3 million, and 12.5 percent of any proceeds thereafter.

According to one estimate by the Western Land Exchange Project, even after Doyle pays his obligations to the state, he stands to profit $27 million from the sale of the lands, based on an average price of $15,000 an acre. Some property has already been purchased by the government.

The Hansen legislation could pay Doyle a down payment of about $10,000 an acre for his private lands, which is somewhat less than other landowners have received and more than what others were paid. Doyle has insisted the lands are worth about $30,000 an acre.

If Doyle's disputed appraisals hold up, the government would be obligated under Hansen's bill to pay Doyle another $30 million to $40 million.

According to a Deseret News review of contributions to Hansen's campaigns, Doyle and three family members, all with the same St. George address, contributed $8,000 to Hansen's 1996 and 1998 re-election bids. Donations to the 2000 campaign have not yet been filed with the Federal Elections Commission.

As reported in a recent Deseret News series on questionable land trades and acquisitions in Utah, investigators with the Inspector General's Office of the Department of Interior and the General Accounting Office are looking into whether American taxpayers were fleeced by land deals that made millionaires out of many southern Utah landowners.

The investigation was prompted in part by accusations from Jack MacDonald, the former chief appraiser for the Bureau of Land Management in Utah, who claimed the government was paying prices 50 to 100 times the actual value of the lands.

E-mail: spang@desnews.com; donna@desnews.com