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Water, tax revenue keys to deal with tribe

Mehdi Azarmi

Supervisors swayed by promise of future development in parched Mohave Valley

KINGMAN - A working relationship with the Fort Mohave Tribe could mean an increase to the Mohave County coffers when property values rise around 125 acres of privately held land that includes the Huukan Golf Course, formerly known as the Desert Lakes Golf Course, in Mohave Valley.

The tribe bought the acreage recently and has been cleaning it up in order to reopen it to the public.

To help with that process, the tribe has asked the federal government to hold the land in trust for it so tribal water can be used to make the golf course lush and green again. But the Mohave County Board of Supervisors planned to protest against the move, noting the land's removal could reduce Mohave County's tax rolls by $27,289 annually. It also would cut funding by $5,000 annually to the Fort Mojave Mesa Fire Department, which provides services to the course.

But board members changed their minds, other than Supervisor Buster Johnson, District 3, after an impassioned speech by Supervisor Steve Moss, District 5, who lives near the golf course and represents it as part of his district. The board agreed to allow the transfer to proceed without objections.

"When an Indian tribe buys a piece of property, it gets transferred into a trust and we will never see property tax or development through the county on that land," said board Chairman Hildy Angius, District 2. "That's not to say the tribe isn't doing good things on the property. This is a whole different and bigger issue that's happening in Mohave County and probably all around Arizona and the West."

The Board was prepared to sign and mail protest letters to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs offices in Washington, D.C., and in Arizona, as well as to state senators and representatives, detailing the board's concerns. The bureau recently asked the county for its input on the transfer.

The board also prepared a resolution against the transfer, noting the county would have to continue providing road maintenance and emergency services to the area.

Fort Mohave resident Mehdi Azarmi, who has lived on the golf course for about 20 years, spoke in favor of the transfer at a recent board meeting. Darrell Raburn, fire chief for Fort Mojave Mesa Fire Department, changed his mind at the meeting.

Azarmi said property values have fluctuated around the golf course over the years, dropping from about $125,000 in the good years to $18,000 after the golf course turned into a "sand dune." After the Fort Mohave tribe bought the land and began maintaining it, even cleaning up and reopening the clubhouse, property values began climbing again and now range between $32,000 and $65,000, said Azarmi.

He agreed the county would lose about $27,000 a year at first, but that would change over time to "a 10- to 20-fold return."

Raburn said he originally planned to speak in opposition to the transfer, because the fire department's budget of $45,000 is based on property taxes and a drop of $5,000 would be critical to providing services. But after talking to Moss before the board meeting, he said the department is willing to cooperate with the board and the tribe.

Moss told the board he supported the transfer for three reasons - the recent improvement in the physical condition of the golf course, a possible increase in the amount of water available to the Mohave Valley Irrigation and Drainage District, and because land was stolen from the tribes when pioneers moved west. Moss told the board it would be unwise to focus on the loss of the property taxes from the golf course when there is so much more at stake.

"The term that occurred to me when I first heard some of the opposition is 'penny wise, pound foolish,'" said Moss. "We're so focused on the equivalent of pennies - the $27,000 and the $5,000 - that we're ignoring the hundreds of thousands of dollars that this will open up to come directly into the county. It's a 10 to 1 benefit, in favor of the county, and it's another example of the tribe being good neighbors."

The golf course has dried out because of a lack of water, said Moss, which has impacted area property values. While the tribe receives 800 acre-feet of water from the MVIDD, that isn't enough to turn the course lush and green again. Moss said the tribe also gets a very large tribal allocation of water, but the federal government stipulates the land the water is used for must be tribal land, not private land. That's why the tribe is trying to transfer it to the tribal trust.

Typically, said Moss, one acre-foot of water allows for the construction of two homes, and 800 acre-feet of water translates into building 1,600 houses or an equivalent size of business. Currently, said Moss, MVIDD's water is fully allocated, which means the district can't offer water to more new houses or businesses. If the tribe is able to use its tribal allocation of water on the golf course, it could give back its MVIDD allocation, which would become available for more houses or businesses.

Supervisor Buster Johnson, District 3, said he appreciated the explanation by Moss but believes the loss of property taxes from the land now is more important than what it could bring to the county in the future in property value increases. Johnson said the school, fire and library districts suffer when that money is removed from the tax rolls and the county should stand firm in opposing the transfer.

Moss said he expects to see water shortages in Mohave County in late 2015 if conditions don't change, which is why it would be important to have a spare 800 acre-feet allocation available so the county doesn't have to dip into existing uses.

"When it comes to this transaction, there is an immediate benefit by the transformation of that golf course," said Moss. "It's not speculative. And when it comes to the expansion of Fort Mohave and the water needs there, that's not speculative, either. We have Walmart breaking ground, and it's the last project we can allocate water to, as it stands now. And when Walmart comes in, more businesses and homes are going to want to come in. The area is growing, and freeing up that water is necessary."


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