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County, after discussion, supports congressional legislation to simplify Santa Clara's purchase of land in a military reserve already set aside for the village.

By Mary Alice Murphy

By Mary Alice Murphy

At a special meeting of the Grant County Board of Commissioners held Monday, April 30, 2018, Santa Clara Mayor Richard Bauch said the village of Santa Clara would like to purchase a portion of the military reserve that is set aside by law for use of the village.

"We made a request of the federal government, which owns the land in trust for the village," Bauch said. "In the request, I said that we get small sections at a time."

U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce is sponsoring a bill that will put the land into the hands of the Forest Service and the Gila National Forest, to have the authority to maintain and monitor the land for Santa Clara, as well as convey the property to the village as requested. The village will purchase parcels as it has use for the land and money to pay for it.

The process as it stands now requires the village to request the portion or portions it wants each time through the Forest Service, which controls the land, and then it has to be approved by Congress and signed by the President of the United States before the land can be conveyed to Santa Clara.

The bill would require only a request of the local Forest Service office, which would relay the property to the village upon receipt of payment through the agency to the Secretary of Agriculture.

"We will get the remainder of this military reserve," Bauch said, "but this bill will let the Forest Service deal with us. The conversion won't change a great deal when we purchase a section. We will do it with the Forest Service instead of requiring congressional action and the signature of the President. It is in the county, so we would like to see county support for this request."

Commissioner Harry Browne said he was a bit confused. "When the fort was created in the 1800s, this military reserve was created. The Forest Service doesn't have authority to transfer the land to the village? Once it is transferred to the Forest Service, Santa Clara or Central City, as it was called, will purchase the land from the Forest Service and it will be conveyed to the village, right?"

Bauch confirmed that would be the process, with the payment going to the Secretary of the Agriculture, who oversees the Forest Service.

Commissioner Gabriel Ramos noted the map does not show the county's shooting range.

Commissioner Brett Kasten said the county leases it from the Forest Service. "The land is owned by the federal government and managed by the Forest Service."

Santa Clara Clerk Sheila Hudman said the current lease between the county and the Forest Service would not be affected unless Santa Clara decided to buy the land, because it is inside the reserve set aside for the village.

She said as she understands it, the bill would simply convey the land to the Forest Service to allow Santa Clara to purchase it in small portions, without requiring congressional action each time.

Kasten said the new Fort Bayard Medical Center sits on land the village bought out of the military reserve and the county bought from Santa Clara. Hudman confirmed the statement.

"So, as long as Santa Clara pays for the survey and appraisal, it can buy the parcels it wants?" Browne asked for clarification. "Why doesn't it say the Secretary has the discretion to sell it without the need to go to Congress."

Bauch said the village requested 51 acres. "We had it surveyed and went through the Forest Service to oversee the process. The Forest Service added almost 31 acres of small pieces of property to about 80 acres. This terminology in the bill came from Congress in a discussion with the Forest Service, which agreed to the arrangement. Congress originally wanted us to purchase the whole 1,500 acres, but we don't have that much money."

Commissioner Alicia Edwards summed it up. "Because the military reserve was set aside specifically for the use of Santa Clara, what remains will be under the Forest Service as agent, and as long as the village does what is required, it becomes the property of the village."

Candidate for county commissioner, Donald "Jesse" Franklin-Owens said the reason he was at the meeting was to say that a large group of people had opposed the first site for Bataan Memorial Park, for a variety of reasons, including traffic and lighting. "About 500 to 700 of us signed a petition asking the park be moved to the current site. Kind of like the F-16s issues, folks filled the room. I've been chatting with the mayor. Two groups of people continue to be in opposition of some of the language. We ask the 1,500 acres be changed to 1,220. There is a nice creek and valley on the remaining almost 300 acres. If those acres could be discussed to keep the land in its natural state. If we say now we won't give the village access to that land, it would stay natural. Congress has to agree that the western half of Section 34, the northwest and southwest sections would not be part of this transfer."

Franklin-Owens also noted the Arenas Valley Road is included in the area to which he referred. Two small sections are also marked PLO, which are managed by Public Land Orders and have special restrictions.

Commission Chairman Billy Billings asked why the legislation was being promoted now.

"Mr. Pearce told me he was wanting to give the bill to Congress within the next two to three weeks," Bauch said. "In response to Mr. Franklin-Owens, the purpose of this bill is to transfer the whole thing, all the acreage, to the Forest Service. The conveyance should be all of it, or it would have to go back to Congress again. The village could designate that portion of the property as a park. We could respect that. That is why we have environmental surveys. We know some of the land is sensitive."

Edwards said if the village took action, declaring this portion of section 34 as a park, there would need to be some sort of binding agreement to protect it now, in case a developer came along later with a lot of money.

County Attorney Abigail Burgess said the best way would be to put it in the bill, but "we can't tell them how to deal with it. We can't stop the transfer. The county doesn't have control of that piece."

"I don't think we should be telling Santa Clara what they can do with the land before they even own it," Ramos said.

"If it went that far, we would have public hearings," Bauch said. "Right now, it's still managed by the Forest Service. If we were to annex it, we could designate it as a city park."

Edwards said: "If we were to approve this today, then it would essentially be up to the folks Mr. Franklin-Owens was talking about to protect it from development as they did before."'

Burgess said the land was intended for Santa Clara. "If you approve this, are you in any different position?"

Browne said he had a question. "We receive PILT (payment in lieu of taxes for federally owned property within the county). I have no idea if it impacts PILT. I don't know how much it would impact it. This is prime property."

Billings said if the parcels along the highway were to be developed, taxes would more than offset what the county receives in PILT.

The motion for the county to approve the Santa Clara request for support of the legislation carried.

Live from Silver City

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