October 11, 2008

Fiscal Slowdown May Aid County’s Land Preservation


Pima County will try to take advantage of the slowdown in the housing market to buy up state trust land it wants to preserve.

Earlier this year, the county asked the state to put land on Tumamoc Hill up for auction so it can try to buy it. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved a plan to file similar applications for four other parcels, the largest of which would add more than 4,400 acres to Tortolita Mountain Park.

All the parcels were set aside for conservation under the Arizona Preserve Initiative, which later was declared unconstitutional.

Until recently, county officials feared asking the state to put the land up for auction because developers might outbid them.

That fear has eased significantly.

Meanwhile, county officials also want to take advantage of state matching funds from the Growing Smarter program, which the city of Phoenix has been using at a rapid rate.

The auction for 320 acres on Tumamoc Hill will take place in January. The State Land Department has appraised the land at $4.6 million, and the Growing Smarter fund has promised to provide up to $3.5 million to the county, while the county has around $5 million in bond funds available for that project.

The applications approved Tuesday include 4,417 acres that are expected to be set aside as natural open space as part of the Arroyo Grande planning process for 9,000 acres of state trust land. The county is eligible for matching funds for a little more than half that land.

The areas targeted for open space are key wildlife corridors between the Santa Catalina Mountains and the Tortolitas. If the planning process, which is not yet complete, changes the areas set aside for conservation, the county could amend its application.

Though the planning process indicates the land will be preserved even if sold to private developers, county officials want to buy it so they can add it to Tortolita Mountain Park.

The other three properties are much smaller: 61 acres at Trails End at the northeast side of Tucson Mountain Park, 42 acres at Robles Pass on the southeast side of Tucson Mountain Park, and 67 acres at Valencia Site, the location of an ancient Hohokam village along the banks of the Santa Cruz River.

In other business, the supervisors ordered top public works officials to undergo training in the relationship between the Clean Water Act and the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, especially as it applies to county projects that have an impact on tributaries of the Santa Cruz River.

The training was requested by Supervisor Richard Elias, who has expressed concern county officials were, in effect, setting board policy without board permission, by trying to convince federal regulators that Clean Water Act restrictions might not apply to tributaries of the Santa Cruz.

A county audit of correspondence found officials did not deliberately try to set county policy, leading Elias to question whether they needed education on the county's policy, which is that the strictest level of federal regulations should apply to the Santa Cruz and its tributaries.

The county is awaiting a decision from the federal Environmental Protection Agency on which regulations will apply.

The supervisors also voted 4-1 to approve $25,000 for Humane Borders to place water stations for migrants in the desert. Supervisor Ann Day voted no.

* Contact Erica Meltzer at 807-7790 or [email protected]

Originally published by ERICA MELTZER, ARIZONA DAILY STAR.

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