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ELOY, AZ-Three years after filing a complaint against a Scottsdale, AZ-based developer, the US Environmental Protection Agency and US Justice Department have struck a settlement in the case. The $1.25-million civil penalty is the largest in the history of the EPA’s Pacific Southwest region under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

George H. Johnson, his development companies and the land-clearing contractor 3-F Contracting Inc. of Gold Canyon, AZ were fined for bulldozing, filling and diverting about five miles of the Santa Cruz River, which flows through the 1,997-acre King Ranch and 18,300-acre La Osa Ranch, about 100 miles northwest of Tucson. Section 404 protects against unauthorized filling of federally protected waterways through a permit program administered jointly by EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers.

The consent decree, filed in US District Court in Phoenix, has a 30-day comment period before it garners final approval. The justice department and EPA cited Johnson after residents, tribes and environmental agencies from all government levels raised concerns about flooding and ecological impact on vegetation and wildlife. The area contained one of the few extensive mesquite forests remaining in the Sonoran Desert.

“A seven-figure penalty in this type of enforcement case is virtually unprecedented,” Ronald J. Tenpas, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, says in the release.

The alleged violations occurred in 2003 and 2004 when Johnson’s company bulldozed 2,000 acres of King Ranch and La Osa Ranch in preparation for master-planned developments, according to the agency’s press release. La Osa Ranch, at one time, was slated to hold up to 67,000 housing units. Information about King Ranch, adjacent to La Osa Ranch, was not available. Johnson had acquired both land parcels in 2003.

In 2004, W Holdings bought La Osa Ranch. H. Pike Oliver, senior vice president of the Tempe, AZ-based development company, tells GlobeSt.com that W Holdings is in the process of long-term planning for the acreage, which is located on the southern edge of Eloy City. “We’re working at a leisurely pace to husband our resources appropriately,” he adds. “We’re not rushing into anything.”

Earlier in the year, Oliver told the Arizona Daily Star that one of the plans involved setting aside two large portions of La Osa to protect the wildlife areas. In addition, an agreement was made with the Western Air National Guard Aviation Training Site to limit development in areas that overlap military air space for training missions.

During the brief land-holding tenure of La Osa Ranch, Johnson sparked a great deal of controversy in the area. He also was accused of destroying Hohokam archeological sites along the Santa Cruz River in his zeal to grade the land for development.

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