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Long fight over a little land nears end for Coconino homeowners

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WASHINGTON – It took a wildfire, three Congresses and years of negotiations, but residents of a Coconino County subdivision could soon be able to make their properties whole again.

The Senate gave final approval Thursday to a bill to let Mountainaire homeowners buy bits of the Coconino National Forest, after the discovery that a decades-old surveying error put the forest boundary through their properties – and, in some cases, right through homes.

Only 2.67 acres of disputed land is involved, but for the 25 affected homeowners it could end years of uncertainty that made it difficult for them to sell, insure or improve their properties.

“We were determined and refused to give up,” said Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff, who cosponsored the bill with Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott. “The homeowners were living under a cloud of uncertainly because of the government’s mistake. It wasn’t fair.”

The Senate approved the measure on a voice vote Thursday after Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., told lawmakers that Mountainaire could be in the path of the Slide Fire that had already forced the evacuations of nearby Coconino communities. The growing fire just “brings added uncertainty to a lonstanding boundary dispute,” he said.

“Some of those homeowners have apparently been told by  their insurance companies that if the Slide Fire destroys their homes, they will be compensated,” Flake said. “However, it is unlikely they will be able to rebuild on the property because of the boundary dispute.”

Passing the bill was “the least we can do during this difficult time,” he said.

The measure passed without debate, capping years of effort by Arizona lawmakers.

The problem began in 1960, when a survey of the Coconino National Forest incorrectly placed the forest’s boundary lines. Property in Mountainaire was bought and sold based on the incorrect lines.

The error was discovered in a 2007 survey by the Bureau of Land Management, which placed the forest boundary through some Mountainaire property.

Kirkpatrick tried to fix the problem with a bill in 2010 that never made it out of committee. After unseating Kirkpatrick in that year’s elections, Gosar gave it another try in 2011, with a bill that passed the House but died in the Senate.

After they were both re-elected in 2012, Gosar and Kirkpatrick jointly re-introduced the bill last year. It passed the House last summer and finally passed the Senate this week.

The bill does not give the disputed land back to the homeowners, but allows them to buy it from the federal government.

Gosar was not available for comment Friday. Kirkpatrick, noting the still-growing Slide Fire, said she was nervous for the homeowners but happy to finally have closure on the property issue.

“I’m so relived and proud,” she said. “They (homeowners) finally know where they stand and I am so thankful for their patience this long process.”