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Coconino residents hope bill can fix decades-old property-line mixup

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WASHINGTON – Esther Stewart sat down this week and wrote a check to the federal government, to pay property tax on land she does not own.

She is one of 25 property owners in Mountainaire, a community near Flagstaff, who woke up one morning in 2007 to find the Coconino National Forest boundary line had been moved to take in some – or in Stewart’s case, almost all – of their properties.

The shift was needed to correct a surveying error from 1960. Now, Mountainaire residents hope a bill moving through Congress will let them buy back the lands they thought they once owned.

The bill, cosponsored by Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff, and Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, would let residents buy the disputed 2.67 acres from the Bureau of Land Management for $20,000. It was unanimously approved Wednesday by the House Natural Resources Committee and heads next to the full House.

It is the third time Arizona lawmakers have tried to fix the Mountainaire problem.

“It’s taken a very long time,” which makes the idea of paying to buy the land again even more annoying, Stewart said. “We are on the injustice end. None of us knew.”

Kirkpatrick said the residents have been “amazingly patient” and that she sympathizes with them.

“Imagine waking up one day to learn your property isn’t really yours,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s a problem they didn’t create.”

The residents still pay property taxes, but cannot make any modifications that would require a permit and cannot sell the properties under current conditions, Stewart said.

“If we do anything that would cross the line, they won’t give it (approval) to us,” Stewart said. “Today, I’m writing my second property tax check to the federal government on land that isn’t mine.”

Coconino County Supervisor Matt Ryan said that an error like the one in Mountainaire would normally be taken up with the surveyor who made the mistake in the first place, but that surveyor had already died by the time the error was found.

“They didn’t do anything wrong,” Ryan said of the property owners. “They bought a piece of property based on a survey. Surveys are supposed to be accurate.”

One option would be for the Forest Service to just convey the land back to the residents, but that process would take at least 15 years, Ryan said.

The decision to offer money in exchange for the land was not easy for property owners with limited cash flow in the working-class community, Ryan said.

“It was a tough one for people to swallow, that they out-and-out paid for a piece of land, and now they have to come up with some money for the forest service,” Ryan said.

He said the residents hope the money will give the government an incentive to correct the error more quickly. But even that has been a fight.

“The challenge is it’s an act of Congress to make this happen,” Ryan said. “That’s not always the easiest thing.”

Kirkpatrick introduced a bill in 2010, but it never made it out of committee. Then Gosar introduced a bill in 2012 that passed the House but died in the Senate.

This year, Kirkpatrick and Gosar hope their bill will garner bipartisan support and finally become law.

Gosar said in a prepared statement Wednesday that he is proud to have moved the bill forward.

“Homeowners should not have their hands tied because of a government error,” he said. “It’s time to end this ridiculous situation.”

In the interim, Stewart worries about a forest fire or a tree falling on her home.

“If a tree falls and opens up the roof, well, that’s that. I can’t rebuild. I just have to walk away,” she said.

That’s why she is willing to pay $4,000, her share of the total, to get the property back, she said, noting that it could be worse.

“People have this line going through the middle of their property or the middle of their homes,” she said. “It’s just a mess, that’s all.”