WASHINGTON - A House committee gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a bill that will let homeowners bordering Coconino National Forest buy parts of the forest - which currently runs through their living rooms.
The bill addresses a 1960 surveying error that identified part of the forest as private land, land on which 26 homes were later built. The mistake was uncovered by a new government survey in 2007.
"On some of these parcels, the revised boundary goes through portions of a resident's home - literally right through people's homes," Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Flagstaff, the bill's sponsor, told the House Natural Resources Committee. "Can you imagine if the Forest Service told you that, ‘Oops, you don't have a living room.'?"
Esther Stewart, 74, lost more than a living room. The Mountainaire subdivision resident saw 94 percent of her property reclassified as national forest land by the 2007 Bureau of Land Management survey.
"Six percent is all that's left, and that is a ditch," Stewart said from her home Wednesday. "Quite literally that is a ditch. It's a water runoff. I couldn't pitch a tent in it because it's full of rocks."
The bill would let homeowners like Stewart buy the affected 2.67 acres of Coconino forest land from the government for a total of $20,000.
Stewart, the property owner most affected by the boundary shift, expects to pay $4,262.40 for her share, citing the latest projections by the Coconino County Assessor's Office. She said another homeowner, who had inches of their property affected, would pay $11.52.
Without the bill, Stewart said affected property owners would have to continue to pay taxes for property they cannot rebuild on, repair or resell.
"If we get a really dry summer and we get a forest fire and my house is consumed by forest fire, I have nowhere to go," she said. "I have to go find another place to build because I can no longer build on this property because I don't own it, even though I pay the taxes on it."
The committee rejected an amendment by Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, that would have stricken "$20,000″ from the bill and changed the sale price instead to "an amount agreed upon." Grijalva said he supports the bill, but wants to know the land's true value.
"In order to be honest and transparent . . . it would have been good to know what the amount of the value really was," he said after the meeting. "I thought it would be important for Mr. Gosar to at least follow the process and tell us what the net value of that taxpayer holding is."
But Gosar argued that figuring the value of the land, as Grijalva's amendment would have required, would put the bill back four years. He urged the committee instead to move the bill forward and rid the property owners and the Coconino National Forest of this burden.
"This bill is a no-brainier," Gosar said during the meeting. "It is a headache for all that can be simply fixed by my bill."
The committee did add an amendment making it clear that money from the land sale would go to the U.S. Forest Service generally, and not be kept in Arizona. Gosar said later that he did not have a problem with the amendment, which removed any doubt that the funds from the land might be earmarked.
The bill is expected to easily pass the House. Gosar said at the hearing that it has the support of the Obama administration.
"It'll pass," Grijalva agreed. "I don't think there'll even be a roll-call vote. It's not a controversial piece of legislation. It's been worked out for four years."
Stewart said she was glad to see some progress, but said the issue needs to be resolved during this Congress so it doesn't face further delays.
"I'm glad it's moving forward . . . because if it doesn't, it just keeps going and going," she said. "We need it to be resolved."