Developer's hope for reimbursement falls short
WASHINGTON - Jim Doyle will have to keep waiting for a check from the government.
The Utah land developer once again came up short in his quest for legislation requiring the federal government to pay him for 1,550 acres the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared critical breeding grounds for endangered desert tortoises.
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, sponsored legislation directing the Department of Interior to purchase Doyle's land. The measure cleared the Senate earlier this month on the evening before Congress adjourned for the year. But the tactic of attaching it and other Senate public lands bills to an unrelated measure that was headed for easy passage backfired, and the package died in the House.
Doyle has battled federal wildlife managers over a fair price for his land north of St. George since 1990, when the FWS added the tortoise to its endangered species list and torpedoed his plan to build a suburb there.
The agency determined Doyle's property was "biologically significant for gene pool exchange" and prevented any development that might threaten reproduction of the dwindling number of land-dwelling turtles.
A Bureau of Land Management appraisal put the fair market value of the land at $28 million, but Doyle has maintained that its potential for development justifies a price tag upward of $50 million. The property was part of the state school trust lands system and Doyle began acquiring it in 1981 by signing lease-purchase option agreements with the state.
Opponents of the compensation legislation, such as the Western Land Exchange Project, have told Congress that Doyle is a speculator who never paid for the land until the tortoise was listed and his intention had always been to force the government to buy him out.
Since 1998, U.S. Senate records show Doyle has paid more than $280,000 to various Washington lobbyists to help him get a compensation bill passed, including former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and attorney David Lee, an aide to former Utah politicians Gov. Cal Rampton, Sen. Frank Moss and Rep. Gunn McKay.
Doyle testified to Congress in 2000 that he had to sell his business assets, two homes and an airplane to fund his fight with the federal government.
Under Bennett's bill, Doyle would have received a $15 million down payment, with a federal court to determine the balance of the land's value.
After a hearing in November 2003, the bill languished in the Senate Energy Committee until the night before Congress adjourned for the year on Dec. 8.
Committee chairman Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., inserted Bennett's bill along with 15 others from his committee files into an unrelated bill. The entire package died in the House as the 108th Congress adjourned.
But Bennett intends to reintroduce a version of the bill in the next Congress, his office said.
"Our hope is that the Senate is able to send over a package of unfinished business early in the 109th session for action by the House," said Bennett's spokeswoman Emily Christensen.
Doyle could not be reached for comment and a call to his attorney was not returned. In his earlier appearance before Congress, he complained of the long delays in getting federal payment for his property.
"There have been promises upon unfulfilled promises from the Department of the Interior that a solution was just around the corner," Doyle said. "But just as I reach that illusive corner, I discover it leads to yet another dead end."