When Mayor Martin Chavez announced the city's plan to clear dead brush and nonnative trees on D. McCall's property, the general tone was cordial and straightforward. The news was basically a broad gesture of support for keeping the entire Rio Grande State Park well-maintained and safe from potential fire threats this summer.
"We just want to make sure the public is aware the city is performing this work, not a developer, consistent with keeping it Open Space," Mayor Chavez said in a prepared statement last week.
While that was the extent of the city's announcement, the timing would seem to indicate that negotiations to purchase the property from Mr. McCall before he follows through with his plan to build 138 homes up to the river's edge are continuing in earnest.
But a letter exchange between McCall's lawyer and city officials in the days preceding the mayor's announcement reveal brewing animosity.
In a letter addressed to City Attorney Bob White dated April 13, McCall's attorney, Rebecca Sitterly, chastised the city for putting McCall in a "difficult and awkward position" by questioning whether it's feasible to build homes in a floodway.
According to city officials, Mr. McCall does not have the permits from the various government agencies that are required before the project can move forward.
Sitterly's letter also suggested that the city was stalling negotiations by postponing a formal mediation hearing until later this month. The letter states, "the city has placed this matter in a quagmire" showing "no genuine desire to emerge in a timely manner."
As a result of the city's alleged inactivity toward negotiating a purchase price, Sitterly's letter concludes: "Mr McCall has arranged for equipment and workers to begin clearing trees, brush and downed wood on his property as necessary to allow for both fire protection and his residential development plans. This work will begin on April 19, 2004."
Residential development plans? Some might take that as innuendo for taking down the cottonwoods.
The day after receiving Sitterly's notice, on April 14, City Attorney White countered that it was McCall putting restrictions on the appraisal process and thereby slowing negotiations for the land transaction. "We will not consider it to be good faith if Mr. McCall begins preparation of the land for development ... as threatened in your letter. If Mr. McCall's intent is to clear the pristine land for only fire protection, the city is willing to do that for him as we continue mediation."
White's letter also states: "We are perplexed as well by your refusal to provide us with information for mediation as basic as your client's purchase documents." The letter concludes: "If you continue to proceed as threatened, the city will need to advise the appropriate county officials and other enforcement officials of your action."
Both letters are a matter of public record.
Interestingly, a mediation session took place last week between city officials and another of Mr. McCall's attorneys, Alan Wilson. The session took place on April 29, and had been scheduled some months ago.
When asked during an interview with the Alibi on April 28, if the scheduled meeting on April 29, was an example of delaying the mediation process, Sitterly said she did not know there was such a meeting scheduled, instead saying she thought the parties were not to meet until "sometime in May," adding that Mr. McCall "has been as patient as Job."
"I think as far as the city's approach, it has been very rapid," said Jay Hart, superintendent of City Open Space, who, along with City Attorney White is representing the taxpayers in the mediation process. "We are obviously interested in wrapping this up, and it's not in the city's interest to stall. The City Council and mayor want to restore this area."
According to city officials, last week's mediation session was the first step in laying out facts in hopes of reaching an agreeable purchase price once the parties meet again later this month with former state Attorney General Paul Bardecke as mediator.
So for now, McCall's implied threat to clear-cut the area for residential development has been averted.
Mr. McCall told the Alibi back in February that he valued his property at more than $30 million. At that time, the city appraised it at $3.7 million.
When asked last week if McCall has lowered his calculations, Sitterly said, "No comment;" however, news reports suggest that the asking price is now $17.5 million.
If McCall refuses all offers from the city, including an offer reached in mediation, the city would have little recourse other than to condemn the land and pay the appraised value. If that were to occur, Mr. McCall would have the legal right to sue for a higher sum. According to legal experts, such lawsuits usually end with a jury ruling the parties should split the difference between the city appraisal and the asking price, forcing the city taxpayers to ante-up the difference.
But there is one unique factor that might save the taxpayers millions of dollars, even if the final price is left to a jury.
That is, just over a month ago the city purchased a near identical 126-acre parcel of land from Ray Graham for $4.5 million, after appraising it at approximately $4.1 million. The property sits on the south side of Montaño bridge, a short walk from McCall's proposed Bosque Wilderness Subdivision, and is now managed by City Open Space.
Mr. Graham, a philanthropist and investor, owned the land since 1967 and had been negotiating a sale price with the city since 1997.
"We have a good working relationship with the Open Space people." Said Bill Tappan, Mr. Graham's associate, "(Graham) never looked to develop it."
McCall, on the other hand, had been working as the agent for the Taylor Foundation for nearly a year before eventually purchasing his property from the non-profit organization in October 2003. According to county records, McCall paid $3.3 million in an owner financed transaction, but, as noted in the City Attorney's letter, the purchase documents have not yet been made public.
Following the city's acquisition of the Graham property, McCall now owns the only remaining tract of private land along the river in Albuquerque. The rest of the estimated 2,500 acres of Bosque between Sandia and Isleta Pueblos are part of Rio Grande State Park.