Property owners express concerns with Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area boundaries
Lee Ott, a local lettuce grower, had a simple idea.
He wanted to build a new house for his wife. But his construction plans have been complicated after finding out that at least 200 acres of his Gila Valley farm fall within the boundaries of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area.
"At first, we didn't know what a heritage area was," Ott said. "Now we know and we want out of it. There is no reason to be in this."
He understands the heritage board has no plans to touch his farmland without his permission. But that doesn't change his opinion. Ott still wants out.
"We are not concerned with the here and now," Ott said. "We are concerned about 10, 15 or 20 years from now. By then, there may be new people on the board with different ideas. There is no reason why we should be in the boundaries."
Russell "Rusty" Washum, manager of Los Angeles Yuma Freight Lines Inc., has similar concerns after recently learning the family-owned business at 800 S. Pacific Ave. is also in the heritage area.
"We weren't aware we were in the heritage area," said Washum. "To my knowledge, we weren't contacted in writing about it."
Washum said he has concerns about the impact "down the road" and wonders how the designation might impact changes the family might want to make to the property in the future.
Several property owners, including farmers, business owners and home owners, were unaware that their land lies within the boundaries, according to Harold Maxwell, president of the Yuma County Farm Bureau.
After hearing from concerned members, the Farm Bureau is investigating the boundaries, restrictions and history of this federal designation on behalf of area landowners. The organization is hoping to have a meeting with the various property owners to discuss this issue, but no date has been set yet. For more information, call Maxwell at 726-6500.
In 2002, Congress designated Yuma Crossing as a federal historic area, the first one west of the Mississippi River. The 22-square-mile area stretches from the river on the west and the north to Avenue 7E on the east and to the 12th Street alignment on the south.
Charles Flynn, the city's executive director of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area, said there is no reason for concern.
"The heritage area is voluntary participation," he said. "So if someone doesn't want to be involved, they are not involved."
Within a long-term management plan, the nonprofit board has separated the area into seven districts. With federal funding, the plan is working to restore the East Wetlands and West Wetlands along the river to their original state.
So Ott's farm land, along with many other farms, businesses and homes, is within the designation of the heritage area, but not part of the districts.
Until recently, many farmers and business owners were under the impression that the heritage area was limited to the districts. After looking at the map, these people have called the Farm Bureau.
"They are not real comfortable with what happened," Maxwell said.
It's a case of the what-ifs. With vague information, property owners have expressed concerns about several situations that could turn into worst-case scenarios.
For example, what if a farmer wanted to remove an old building on his property, but the heritage board wants that building designated as a historic site? It isn't clear what happens, Maxwell said.
"It's not about right here and right now," Ott said. "What about my kids? What if they want to sell this land for an industrial park? Does that fit into a heritage area? It's our land to be done with what we plan."
Even though a heritage area is a federal designation, each one is different, Flynn pointed out. In the case of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area, there are safeguards to prevent infringements on property rights.
"We don't have any effect on zoning or private property issues," Flynn said. "The board makes the local decisions, but they are limited by Congress. So even if you have a strong board, they don't have the power to do it."
Flynn emphasized that each project must be approved by the involved land owners. For example, with the East Wetlands, there was one property owner who didn't want to participate.
"So that one isn't involved and we worked around it," Flynn said. "And outside the district, it has no impact. This is a partnership with the people that want to do things."
Why even have this extra land outside the districts?
In the beginning stages of the heritage area, a task force looked for a plot of land that could be used for cultural, historical and agricultural purposes.
Originally, there was discussion about trying to restore one of the first farm buildings in Yuma, which is why boundaries were extended beyond the river. Later, that idea was abandoned. But the boundaries remained, Flynn explained to The Sun.
That wasn't Ott's understanding. He said Flynn told land owners the reason for the large area - but specific districts - was an attempt to increase the size of the federal grant.
"It gives them more money to put into the wetlands," Ott said.
A letter from Flynn to Maxwell stated that farmers and other landowners may be allowed to remove their land from the heritage area.
Flynn offered this recommendation for property owners who do not want to participate in the heritage area.
"They could write us a letter and the board could pass a resolution stating their position," Flynn said. "We are not going to go back to Congress. We feel that the board can pass a resolution making that decision. We don't feel it's necessary, but if they feel it's necessary, then they can do that."
Flynn said the board wants input from the property owners.
"We need to do some education and start a dialogue to talk through this stuff," he said. "The board wants to have the input of the agricultural community, but we haven't figured out the best way to do it."
Michelle Kann can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6855.