September 23, 2013

Landowner says desert tortoise, federal government left him bankrupt

A Washington County landowner and developer had a vision for a residential development and upscale golf course on the benches above St. George and Washington. He's now bankrupt — a destiny he said was chartered by the desert land tortoise. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue
Deseret News

ST. GEORGE — James Doyle had a dream in 1980 to create a beautiful residential development and golf course on the picturesque benches overlooking St George and the community of Washington.

Then along came the desert tortoise and a federal listing of the animal under the Endangered Species Act.

It's been more than 30 years, countless negotiations, a few successful land trades — but Doyle was left bankrupt and an old man, his vision unrealized.

"His dreams have been pretty well doused by being in these tragic set of circumstances," said Doyle's attorney, Timothy Anderson. "He went from a competent real estate developer to a guy who is just barely getting by. It is a very sad thing to have watched."

Doyle has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior and Washington County, demanding compensation for financial and emotional losses brought on by a series of failed promises and bungled agreements by the government to adequately compensate him.

"Mr. Doyle anticipated that his land would get bought," Anderson said. "The Bureau of Land Management was tasked with facilitating these exchanges with the input and involvement of Washington County. But when you start dealing with the government, they say one thing and do another."

Back in 1980, Doyle began acquiring land to develop in Washington County, purchasing 2,440 acres and obtaining the leases and other rights to another 11,000 acres. By 1989, working with Washington County and St. George, he had obtained all the necessary permits, development plans, water rights and zoning changes for his development, according to the lawsuit.

"He was approaching shovel ready," Anderson said.

That same year, however, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the Mohave desert tortoise as endangered, adding it to the list of species meriting federal protection.

Anderson's suit asserts the designation brought development to a standstill in Washington County, with political leaders under mounting pressure to come up with a habitat conservation plan that would meet with federal approval.

Ultimately, by 1996, the county submitted plan in which Doyle agreed to place virtually all of his land inside a tortoise reserve on the condition he receive compensation at fair market value, either in cash or land exchanges.

Over the years, there were four land exchanges, but Doyle still owns property within the reserve for which he hasn't been compensated.

"He only has 248 acres, and still the government holds the key to his land," Anderson said. "The magic of how you are going to ultimately get paid is under the control of the federal government and or the county. And about all you can do is go to them with hat in hand."

Because Doyle and others who owned land inside what would become the desert tortoise conservation area agreed to give up their land in exchange for compensation, Anderson said the county was once again free to pursue development because it could prove the tortoise was being protected.

Doyle, in the meantime, has kept vainly hoping that the government will work out a just deal for him, or that federal legislation to help him will pass in Congress.

Anderson said the much-celebrated Washington County Lands Bill that ultimately passed in 2009 was supposed to help Doyle, but at the last minute he was left out of it entirely.

"It is a travesty," Anderson said. "As far as I know, this is not Russia or China, but for Mr. Doyle, it largely is."

The U.S. Department of the Interior does not comment on pending litigation, and efforts to reach Washington County were successful.