FLORENCE — Housing developer George Johnson is asking the town to relinquish its right to provide water and sewer service in the southern, unserved part of the community and convey that right to him.
Johnson said he would then be able to develop Florence Ranch — a community of 6,000 homes, a dude ranch and destination boutique spa — on 1,112 acres.
But “we can’t do anything until we know we have water and sewer,” Johnson told the Town Council.
“I need to know by your next council meeting,” Johnson told members at a Jan. 9 special council work session. “Because I can’t be talking to people and putting my name and reputation on the line when I don’t know if I have a project. It’s pretty simple. ... We can either go away or we can start a good project.”
Johnson already provides water and sewer service in the northwest Florence Anthem area. The town is the provider in the older part of Florence.
Mayor Tom Rankin told his fellow council members he liked the idea of allowing Johnson to be the provider south of the Central Arizona Project canal. “I’m willing to take a shot on it and get it going and do something for Florence.”
Deputy Town Manager Jess Knudson told the council members that if they handed over the water rights, they would have given up their power to negotiate how the land is developed. “If there are any terms to the (development agreement) you want to see, now is the time for that to take place.”
Johnson, the original developer of the San Tan Valley area, sounded frustrated on a couple of occasions.
“I don’t mean to be obnoxious, but this is something we’ve worked hard on for six months now. With Himanshu (former Town Manager Himanshu Patel) leaving and everything else ... we stuck our neck out with people around the country. I can’t have a bunch of bureaucratic obstacles thrown at me at this time.”
Town Attorney James Mannato urged the council to consider Johnson’s likelihood of selling houses in the current market, plus the rights the town would be giving up.
“What are you expecting to receive for the town in return for relinquishing the rights that Mr. Johnson is asking you to relinquish?” Mannato asked.
But Rankin said it would be “a small price to pay for what we gain with people living here and shopping here and business coming into the area.
“If we don’t do something,” Rankin continued, “we’re sitting on our duffs again, not doing anything, and Florence continues to go down.” He said grocers that might be interested in the market want to see rooftops.
But at least a couple of council members indicated they didn’t want to be rushed. “I hate to jump into something blindfolded and say ‘Here you go,’ ” Tom Celaya said.
Vallarie Woolridge added, “Our job is to protect this town. This is an important decision that we’re making and we’re rushing it to please Mr. Johnson. What about our town? What about our town?
“That’s what we were elected to protect. I understand (Johnson) has friends on the council ... but that’s not why I was elected,” Woolridge said.
To begin securing water rights, Johnson needs letters of support from the town on his “section 208” application to the Central Arizona Association of Governments and the Arizona Corporation Commission and a certificate of convenience and necessity from the ACC.
If the town wished to provide water and sewer service south of the canal, it could not merely extend its present utility lines. “It would have to be a totally separate water and sewer solution,” Knudson said.
The Town Council was scheduled to meet earlier this week in closed-door session, and there’s “a possibility” something will be on the agenda for action when the council holds its next regular meeting on Tuesday, Knudson said.
Johnson’s proposed Florence Ranch, off the intersection of Arizona 79 and Florence-Kelvin Highway, borders two smaller future housing developments, Majestic Ranch and Sunaire Ranch.
Johnson told the council that his spa would be marketed throughout the country and his dude ranch would offer trail rides, cookouts and steak fries. He said he would also like to work with the town on its rodeo arena and “we’ll have some small facilities.”
“It’s not gonna be like a normal subdivision,” he said. “It’s gonna be more suburban. It’s gonna be white fences, larger lots, better setbacks. It’ll be what we were used to when you had alfalfa and different types of orchards ... and a more relaxed feeling. Hopefully, people will see it’s a better place to live.”
Johnson said he would be the master developer, working with perhaps four to eight builders. The builders would have such excellent financing that qualifying buyers would need no down payment.