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Arizona City Buys Man’s House for $4 Million, Lets Him Live Rent-Free for the Rest of His Life

Scottsdale wanted the home for its proximity to a nature preserve, an increasingly common conservation strategy.

The McDowell Sonoran Nature Preserve, Scottsdale, Arizona. (Photo: cloud2013 / CC BY-2.0)

An Arizona homeowner made the best deal of his life this week. The Arizona Republic is reporting that Shawn Murphy has sold his 17-year-old, 2,600-square-foot home to the city of Scottsdale for $4 million, and he doesn’t even have to move out.

Murphy’s home is surrounded by the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, a desert nature preserve that was first established in the early 1990s, when the town dedicated 3,000 acres of land to desert preservation. Today, the preserve includes over 30,000 acres of land—but this is the first time the city has purchased a home for inclusion in the preserve.

The terms of the purchase included a couple of notable concessions to Murphy; the city appraised the home at $2.69 million, but an appraiser hired by Murphy valued the house at $6.59 million, so the $4 million purchase price represents a compromise between the two valuations. Additionally, the terms of the purchase allow Murphy to remain in the home until his death, rent-free—although he remains responsible for maintenance and repairs.

Preserve Director Kory Ekbaw explained to the Republic that the agreement is a positive for the preserve, as Murphy has been a good neighbor to the preserve, but there were no guarantees future owners would be the same. “This puts to bed the issue of any future change. We’re not faced with an unknown,” Ekbaw said.

The sale provides an example of two distinct issues facing public land in the United States—the longstanding issue of private inholdings within public lands, and the recent trend of luxury home development near nature preserves. As Joseph Sax explained in his 1980 paper Buying Scenery: Land Acquisitions for the National Park Service, national parks established prior to 1959 take a position of “eventual acquisition” towards inholdings, making arrangements to gain control of the land sooner or later (parks established after 1959 tend towards “prompt acquisition” and try to acquire inholdings as quickly as possible).

While politicians and activists sometimes raise the specter of an aggressively encroaching government wielding eminent domain to force sales of private property, governments generally tend to use eminent domain and seizure through condemnation as a last resort, much preferring to buy land from willing sellers at market rates. In Scottsdale, these purchases are financed through a city sales tax earmarked for desert preservation; the federal government uses the Land and Water Conservation Fund, established by Congress in 1964.

In fact, government efforts to purchase inholdings like Murphy’s home are on the upswing, according to the Wall Street Journal, as inholdings are increasingly being eyed by luxury developers looking to sell homes to wealthy nature-lovers, which many feel detracts from the natural beauty of public lands.

“People come up here to get away from it all, not feel like they are back in the city,” Zion National Park guide Bill Dunn told the Wall Street Journal, referring to a “big and unsightly” private home recently built on an inholding in the park, overtaking an “iconic canyon view.”

Once the city takes possession of Murphy’s house, they may opt to tear it down, according to Ekbaw. But for now, Murphy’s guaranteed himself a home with fantastic scenery, no neighbors, and a considerable monetary windfall.