Just think about it:
You’ve just sold your home to a buyer who has zero interest in moving in or altering the property.
In fact, the new owner has no issue with you continuing to live in their new home rent-free, for the rest of your life. Sure, there are a couple of strings attached — you can only sublet for six months at a time and you have to continue paying insurance, utilities and maintenance — but, otherwise, the home is still very much (but not technically) yours.
Now imagine that the house in question is worth $4 million (less than the $6.4 million you had it appraised for, but a $1.4 million bump from the new owner’s appraisal) and that the new owner is the city where you reside. And one not-so-small detail: the home in question, secluded adobe-style digs spread out over 2,600 square feet, is completely surrounded by the largest urban nature preserve in the United States.
This unusual — and enviable — real estate transaction is playing out in Scottsdale, Arizona, where homeowner Shawn Murphy has essentially been bought out by the city but doesn’t actually have to go anywhere. Just think of it as a hospitable twist on eminent domain playing out against one of the most dramatic landscapes in North America: the Sonoran Desert.
You see, Murphy's out-of-the-way desert hideaway is located within a prime piece of real estate flanked by the 30,000-acre McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Built several years after the foundation of the preserve in 1999, the multi-million dollar hillside compound was once truly in the middle of nowhere. It still is, in a sense but as the preserve, maintained by a public-private partnership between Scottsdale and the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, has expanded over the years, Murphy's property has become engulfed by a city-owned desert habitat.
Located near the preserve’s busy Tom’s Thumb trailhead, city officials view Murphy’s home and the land around it as a “significant asset” that would fill in a long-missing real estate gap within the preserve. As Atlas Obscura notes, Murphy's property is technically an inholding, a term used to describe private land surrounded by protected, publicly owned land including national parks.
Murphy and his home have never been an issue in direct relation to the preserve — it’s not an eyesore and Murphy isn't reported to be a nutjob. No problems there. But as the Arizona Republic explains, a sizable private parcel located within a hiking trail-laden nature preserve does present a quandary, namely the question of what would happen if Murphy decided to sell.
Krow Ekblaw, the city of Scottsdale’s preserve director, explains to the Republic that the driving goal behind the purchase was to secure the long-term future of the country’s most spectacular urban desert wonderland: “In some point of time, if they were looking to move, we might get a neighbor who doesn't share the same goals," Ekblaw said. "This puts to bed the issue of any future change. We're not faced with an unknown."
This makes sense, particularly when you consider that the preserve is located in North Scottsdale, the most rapidly developing neighborhood in a city famed for its golf course-studded resorts and sizable luxury real estate market. Describing North Scottsdale as a "remote enclave known for its lush vegetation, rural flavor and some of the priciest real estate in metropolitan Phoenix," the Republic recently published an article discussing how large-scale developments — development pushed forward by Scottsdale City Council, mind you — are beginning to alter the scenery and kill the "laid-back vibes" enjoyed by longtime residents. Proposed developments in the area include a 443-home luxury subdivision located just up the road from Tom's Thumb Trailhead.
And what happens when Murphy eventually passes away?
"At the time he does pass away or cedes the property, the right to the city, we would evaluate that, and one potential is we would simply remove the home and keep it as the intent of the preserve to keep it in a natural state," Ekblaw explains to Fox 10 Phoenix.
According to the Republic, conversations with Murphy regarding his property were initiated by the city several years ago. Only within the last 18 months did Murphy bite and negotiations begin. Scottsdale City Council unanimously approved the $4 million purchase earlier this month.
Scottsdale taxpayers are footing the bill for this fancy new piece of real estate via a .2 percent city sales tax instituted back in 1995 — five years before Murphy’s home was even built. The tax was created with the sole purpose of generating funds to acquire new land and expand the nascent desert preserve from its original 16,000 acres.
Scottsdale has spent a little under $1 billion on the creation and expansion of McDowell Sonoran Preserve over the past two decades.
It does seem a bit strange that McDowell Sonoran Preserve's most recent real estate acquisition is a private luxury residence that will remain off-limits to visitors. But who knows — maybe if you knock and ask politely enough, Murphy, a homeowner who will soon never have to worry about gaining new neighbors for the rest of his life, will let you use his bathroom.
Just don’t ask to park in the driveway.