The County Board of Supervisors last week approved taking back the final lots in a longstanding dispute involving properties in Rio Rico with millions of dollars in unpaid taxes.

The move effectively ended a two-decade-old dispute over roughly 2,400 Vatere-owned lots by putting the final outstanding properties under Santa Cruz County ownership in lieu of the county receiving the back taxes.

“This is a long time coming and we’re finally here,” said Mary Dahl, the county’s former planning and zoning director who has continued to work on the matter. “The county, with the help of the County Attorney’s Office, will figure out a way to get these into private ownership, we hope, and back on the tax rolls.”

Supervisor Bruce Bracker noted during the Jan. 5 discussion that water and power cannot be delivered to the lots, a factor that has made it difficult for the county to sell those Vatere properties it already controls.

The dispute began when developer Rio Rico Properties transferred the lots to the Phoenix-based Vatere, LLC, with the plan of later selling those properties to Arizona State Parks for preservation. When those plans didn’t come to fruition, the Vatere lots continued accumulating unpaid property taxes each year.

The first 1,375 Vatere lots were put under the auspices of the County Flood Control district in 2017, when the county also granted a tax abatement and removal of tax liens on those properties.

In May 2020, the county took ownership of another 988 undeveloped lots, also abating the taxes and removing the tax liens in the action.

At the time, County Manager Jennifer St. John said there were still a few lots remaining, though nothing like the number of Vatere properties they had previously had to deal with. Those remaining lots were the ones the board moved on last week.

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