Developer under fire for destroying desert

by Tony Davis

A developer who was grading the desert for one of the largest developments in Arizona history now faces a lawsuit alleging major violations of state environmental laws.

In February, the state attorney general’s office accused developer George Johnson and the five companies he owns of illegally destroying 40,203 native desert plants, bulldozing seven archaeological sites, obstructing arroyos, and allowing sediment and other pollutants to enter the Santa Cruz River without a permit. According to the suit, Johnson also allowed thousands of domestic goats to leave his private property and wander onto nearby Ironwood National Monument, where they infected wild bighorn sheep with pinkeye and mouth sores. At least 21 desert bighorns died, and at least 49 others suffered permanent injuries.

The alleged violations occurred during 2003 on 270 acres of state land and 2,000 acres of private land, as Johnson was awaiting a permit from Pinal County to build the 67,000-home La Osa Ranch development. Johnson dropped the project more than a year ago, after news of the environmental damage surfaced.

Johnson’s attorney, Lee Stein, says, "We’re confident that Mr. Johnson and his companies will be vindicated." Stein says the blading on the state land was done by a third-party contractor, who ignored the instructions of company officials. The private-land blading was not done for development, he adds, but for farming and ranching.

The case will probably go to trial in a year, unless it is settled before then, says Andrea Esquer, a spokeswoman for Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard.

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