Friday, December 21, 2007

Developer pays big in Pinal County eco-damage case

[Source: Ronald J. Hansen, Arizona Republic] -- A developer and his partners have agreed to pay the state a record $12.1 million to settle a lawsuit that accused them of polluting the state's water, bulldozing protected land, fatally infecting bighorn sheep and destroying archaeological sites. The state's settlement with George H. Johnson and his business partners primarily involves a tract of desert in the Santa Cruz River Valley area of Pinal County that he wanted to turn into a 67,000-home development about the size of Tempe. The 2003 deal, which would have bordered Ironwood Forest National Monument, fell apart as some landowners resisted Johnson's offers and complained of strong-arm tactics intended to bully them into selling. He sold the land in 2004.

"This resolution is a strong message to anyone who would despoil our environmental heritage," Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said. The settlement, to be split among five state agencies, is the largest environmental-enforcement action in Arizona history, Goddard said. Johnson still faces a federal lawsuit claiming water violations, Goddard said. John DiCaro, one of Johnson's lawyers, stressed that there was no admission of wrongdoing and that Johnson's insurance companies forced the settlement because they will pay for it. "This is a very expensive case to defend. They made a decision to settle," DiCaro said. "George is a very successful developer...He wants to put this case behind him."

Breakdown of costs:

  • Johnson's contractors destroyed 270 acres of state trust lands near the Ironwood property in the area, known as the La Osa Ranch, the suit claimed. Additionally, contractors bulldozed 2,000 acres of private land without a permit and seven Hohokam archaeological sites, the state said (pictured).
  • About $500,000 of the settlement will pay for trial-preparation costs, such as hiring expert witnesses in the case. A portion, $150,000, is to be used to establish a preservation fund for the Arizona State Museum.
  • Goddard declined to give the state's estimate of environmental and archaeological damage, but DiCaro said the state had suggested it was $200 million.
  • Under the agreement, Johnson must pay $7 million before Jan. 4.
  • A firm he used, 3-F Contracting, must pay $5.05 million, and Preston Well Drilling must pay $61,500.

For Johnson, it is the most costly and prominent action taken against him and his businesses in recent years. Records show regulatory agencies have cited him 31 times from 1999 to 2005 for 93 suspected violations in Apache and Pinal counties. The citations range from trespassing to unauthorized construction. At least five of the citations were resolved with a consent order, in some cases with no admission of wrongdoing. Lawyers for the state said Johnson routinely skirted rules to force his developments. DiCaro said Johnson's regulatory record was irrelevant and could not comment about the citations raised by the state. [Photo source: Arizona Republic.]