Scottsdale builder George Johnson’s ill-fated development in southern Pinal County drew a lawsuit by the federal Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday which claims he wreaked environmental havoc by illegally bulldozing debris into the Santa Cruz River.
The EPA maintains that from 2003 to 2004, Johnson and his company plowed dirt, vegetation and other material into about 100 acres of the river and the washes that feed it as he cleared land for his planned La Osa Ranch. Johnson also illegally built dams on the waterways, damaging one of Arizona’s most unique riparian areas, according to the federal agency.
"This part of the Santa Cruz is just extraordinary for its ecological significance," said Alexis Strauss, director of the water division at the EPA’s San Francisco office. "The photos that we have make it look like a moonscape after some of this work."
The EPA’s complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in Phoenix. It asks a judge to order Johnson and his companies to pay to restore the area that was damaged. It also seeks fines against Johnson and his companies of up to $32,500 per day since the land was graded.
Johnson, who has sold the property, did not return phone calls Tuesday. Michael Kitchen, one of Johnson’s lawyers, read a prepared statement denying any violations of federal law.
The Santa Cruz is not a "navigable" waterway under federal jurisdiction, Kitchen said in the statement.
Kitchen said the area that was graded was not an environmentally sensitive site.
"We believe it was purely an issue of dirt," he said. "We believe it was not a sensitive area."
In February, state Attorney General Terry Goddard sued Johnson in Maricopa County Superior Court for many of the same actions that led to the federal complaint. Goddard claims Johnson destroyed state land and archeological sites in a "wanton destruction of Arizona’s heritage."
Johnson is best known as the original developer of Johnson Ranch southeast of Queen Creek. He bought the La Osa and adjacent King Ranch about February 2003, according to the state lawsuit. Johnson planned to build 67,000 homes, a resort, golf courses and commercial developments on the property, according to plans he submitted to Pinal County officials.
In about March 2003, Johnson’s companies began bulldozing an estimated 2,000 acres on the site, including about 270 acres of state trust land, according to the state lawsuit.
The federal complaint states the debris created from grading the land was dumped into the Santa Cruz River and the washes that feed it in violation of federal law. Johnson did not obtain the required permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to discharge debris into the waterways, according to the EPA complaint.