As Luke Air Force Base fights to be named a training hub for the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, an unlikely player could have a significant impact on the long-term viability of the base and the Loop 303 corridor west of Phoenix.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints owns about 3,000 acres near Loop 303 and Peoria Avenue - some within Surprise city limits and some unincorporated county land, according to Glendale Planning Director Jon Froke.
But some West Valley officials and real estate experts say the Mormon church has no plans to develop the land and probably will sell it to developers and home builders, which would change the dynamic of the area.
LDS spokeswoman Kim Farah confirmed the church owns land and that it "is being held for investment purposes." She would not talk about the church's plans for the land or whether the market or other changes would impact those plans.
Developers and owners of land around Luke and Loop 303 are waiting with bated breath to see when the real estate market will recover and gauging the future of the Air Force base, which just landed on the Pentagon's short list for F-35 training operations. The list of property owners in the area includes farmers who have held land there for years, as well as real estate developers such as John F. Long Properties, SunCor Development and DMB Associates. Developers from Las Vegas also own portions of the property surrounding Luke.
If Luke's efforts to attract F-35 operations fail, the base is in jeopardy of closing as the F-16 fighter jet is phased out of military use. Luke is the largest training base in the country for the F-16. Many Valley business leaders say a Luke closure would change the landscape of the West Valley and the Loop 303 corridor.
The LDS church has owned the land fronting both sides of Loop 303 for years, said Surprise Community Development Director Jeff Mihelich. He said LDS property holdings in Surprise account for 1,500 acres and span Loop 303 from Peoria Avenue north toward Bell Road. It is mostly farmland, but Mihelich said the church has sold some parcels for development, including some to shopping center operator Westcor for its mixed-use Prasada project.
Westcor declined to comment on its acquisition of LDS-owned land for the Surprise development.
Mihelich said the LDS church owns about 70 percent of the 303 frontage area in Surprise. The freeway is scheduled to be completed in two segments, with one slated to be done in 2012 and a second connecting Interstates 10 and 17 by 2017.
Greg Vogel, CEO of Scottsdale-based Land Advisors Organization, said the LDS church bought the bulk of the land in 1987 and holds an additional 400 acres in Phoenix, between 59th and 67th avenues. He said other property owners in the far West Valley have held on to their parcels until a good deal came along for home building or commercial development.
But Vogel said the church doesn't have the bottom-line pressures of private companies or landowners and can better withstand market downturns.
"They don't have a sunset or horizon," said Vogel, adding that he doesn't see the church trying to sell the land anytime soon because of the depressed real estate market.
Several major developers also have substantial land holdings near Luke. SunCor owns 1,600 undeveloped acres in Goodyear near the juncture of Interstate 10 and Loop 303; Toll Brothers has subdivision holdings in Litchfield Park; and John F. Long Properties has land near Northern and Peoria avenues.
West Valley cities want to put more commercial and retail developments along Loop 303 to generate tax revenue. City officials say noise from Luke and development restrictions around the base compel commercial rather than residential development in the area. West Valley city officials said tanked consumer spending and the collapsed real estate market are putting retail and commercial developments on hold, and developers are mixed on how Luke's status will impact plans to move forward with future development near the base.
"We would not change our development plans if Luke sold," said Jim Miller, real estate director for John F. Long. SunCor CEO Steve Betts, however, said his company will continue development of the Palm Valley 303 Business Park at its Goodyear site, in part, because of Luke.