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U.S. House OKs bill to let Coconino homeowners fix national forest boundary error

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Flagstaff, said a bill allowing homeowners bordering the Coconino National Forest to fix a surveying error by buying a small parcel of land from the federal government is a “no brainer” that is sure to pass. (Cronkite News Service photo by Salvador Rodriguez)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. House overwhelmingly passed a bill Wednesday to correct a decades-old surveying error that put part of some people’s homes inside the boundaries of the Coconino National Forest.

Under the bill, the government would sell 2.67 acres of the forest for $20,000 to owners of 26 homes, parts of which were located on federal land after a 1960 government surveying error that was only discovered in 2007.

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Flagstaff, who sponsored the bill, called it a “no-brainer.”

“We can’t make victims out of the homeowners,” he said before the vote. “We got to restore that integrity.”

Gosar said the bill is critical. Without it, he said, the affected homeowners can’t sell their homes or make improvements because the homes are currently in the national forest.

“It’s common sense, and it shows that we can still get something done up here in Congress,” he said.

The bill, which passed the House on a 421-1 vote, still needs Senate approval.

“This is fair,” Gosar said of the sale price, “even though I don’t feel it’s fair because this is a problem of the federal government, not of these land owners.”

That feeling was echoed by Esther Stewart, one of the homeowners, who said that while she looks forward to the bill ultimately becoming law, she is not happy at having to pay for what she feels is already hers.

“I want my property back, and I don’t want to have to pay for it,” she said Tuesday after the House concluded debate on the bill. “Justice is a no brainer, give people what is their due. We bought it, we paid for it, we pay our taxes, we keep it up.”

Stewart, 74, was the homeowner most affected, losing more than 90 percent of her property to the forest. While she doesn’t want to pay, she said she would do so for the sake of speeding up the process.

“This isn’t over with yet, but we can’t do the next step until Congress gives the Forest Service the right to convey our property back to us,” she said.

Coconino County Supervisor Matt Ryan said he won’t breathe a sigh of relief until the bill makes it way past the Senate as well.

“It’s critical to get it through the Senate next and to get it on paper so that it can be signed off by the president and that they (the homeowners) can move forward and just have peace with their own personal ownership with the property,” he said.

Ryan said Tuesday he and others have been in contact with the offices of Arizona Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain, keeping them up to date on the issue.

“We have a positive relationship with them on this issue, and we’ll continue to work with them toward moving this forward,” he said.

Gosar said he does not think there will be a problem getting the bill through the Senate, but the question is how fast.

“Always what they say is, ‘You may not like the Democrats, but your enemy’s the Senate,’” Gosar said. “The Senate can move extremely slow or they can move extremely fast. It’s up the Senate.”

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