The Mormon Church has purchased a major chunk of undeveloped property in overbuilt Maricopa from two major home builders.
Property Reserve Inc., a real-estate holding company owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, paid home builders Fulton Homes Corp. and Shea Homes for Active Adults a combined $72 million in October for about 1,900 acres of virgin land in the Pinal County city, 35 miles south of Phoenix.
The deal has left local real-estate professionals shaking their heads. They say the land isn't worth anything close to what the church paid.
"I can't understand paying that kind of price for land in Maricopa at this stage in the market," said home builder Larry Kush, founder of Scottsdale-based Montevina Estate Homes.
The median home price in Maricopa has fallen more than 40 percent since the housing market peaked in late 2005 and has shown no signs of leveling off, according to data from Information Market analyzed by The Arizona Republic.
As a result, most home builders have abandoned plans for future development in the area.
Scrapped projects include a 6,000-home community dubbed Avalea, which would have included one of Shea's active-adult communities as well as conventional housing by Fulton and Shea.
Now the orphaned land of Avalea belongs to the church, and some local analysts say Shea and Fulton got off lucky.
Jim Belfiore of Phoenix-based Belfiore Real Estate Consulting said finished lots in Maricopa - those connected to roads, water, sewer and power infrastructure - have been selling for less than what the church paid for the land, which features no such improvements.
"It's a phenomenal deal for the home builders, because very few buyers, I think, would be willing to pay that kind of money," Belfiore said.
Matt Baldwin, spokesman for Salt Lake City-based Property Reserve, did not return phone calls left last week, and neither did church officials.
Hal Looney, president of Shea Homes for Active Adults, declined comment through his assistant. The Scottsdale builder is a subsidiary of Los Angeles-based J.F. Shea Inc.
A Fulton Homes spokeswoman said the Tempe company's chief executive officer, Doug Fulton, was "the only one qualified to discuss this matter," and that he was unreachable by phone.
Analyst Zach Bowers of Ion Data in Mesa said the deal is by far the largest he has seen this year in Pinal County.
It's not unusual for the Mormon Church to buy land, Bowers said. He said it normally does so through its primary corporate entity, the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Fulton Homes founder Ira Fulton is a high-profile Mormon and philanthropist who has donated more than $250 million combined to Arizona State University, the church-owned Brigham Young University and the University of Utah.
The two home builders' losses associated with purchasing and later selling the land are commensurate with the overall market's decline.
Pinal County Recorder's Office documents show Property Reserve paid Shea $40 million for 1,000 acres Shea had bought for $80 million in July 2005, a 50 percent loss for the builder.
Likewise, Fulton sold its roughly 900 acres to Property Reserve for about $32 million, documents show. Fulton and home builder Standard Pacific of Arizona paid about $75 million for the land in 2005, and Standard Pacific later sold its half to Fulton.
Experts said that property values are expected to keep falling.
Kush said he has spent the past several months analyzing land deals and has seen raw, unimproved land in Maricopa selling for half the $37,000-per-acre price Property Reserve paid.
"That is an amazingly high number," he said.