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Buy Me Land, Lots of Land 

Pima County's fencing off more open space

Propped up by $174 million in bonds that slightly more than one in five eligible voters approved last May, Pima County will spend $8.7 million to add 1,763 acres of ranch land southeast of Tucson to the 8,158 acres of open space it has purchased for $14.69 million in the past eight months.

Next on the county's to-buy list is the Bar V Ranch, including 1,763 acres of private property and 12,674 acres of state grazing leases. The Bar V includes a major portion of environmentally sensitive Davidson Canyon, described in a report prepared for the Board of Supervisors as a "rare confluence of desert and riparian habitat that contains a stretch of perennial water and provides habitat for numerous vulnerable species."

The property is visible from Interstate 10, and the state Transportation Board approved $500,000--under a provision for scenic easements and acquisitions to preserve views along scenic roads and highways--for the Bar V project.

Roughly 300 acres of the Bar V, now part of the Martin Cattle Co., adjoin the Cienega Creek Natural Preserve, which the county began assembling 18 years ago. The Bar V could be in county hands within three weeks, pending approval by the Board of Supervisors.

Under a management agreement that has yet to be made final, the Martin Cattle Co. will manage all but the parcels that are next to the Cienega Creek preserve, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry says.

That will put the county riding herd on two spreads. Supervisors committed taxpayers to spending $2.04 million in September to bail the city of Tucson out of its money-losing, six-year open space and cattle ranch venture at the A-7 Ranch, formerly the Bellota (Spanish for acorn) Ranch. The county acquired more than 100 head of cattle, water rights and ranch equipment. Through an agreement with the city, now in a 90-day extension, the city's ranch hands are managing the A-7, 13 miles from Tucson's northeast corner and through Redington Pass.

But the county has tempered its craving for big chunks of expensive land. County officials are cool to the proposed $11.5 million purchase of the 2,960-acre Rosemont Ranch in the Santa Rita Mountains. Unlike the Bar V and the A-7, the Rosemont was not included in the list of properties outlined in the open-space bond proposal. The purchase would require an amendment to the county's Truth in Bonding Ordinance, touted by Huckelberry and supervisors as the guarantee to voters that bond money would not be shifted.

The Rosemont is the most speculative offer to come to the county. It is owned by Triangle Ventures, an investment group that includes Yoram Levy and Thomas Warne. The two also are active in downtown projects. Levy is the son-in-law of the region's leading real estate investor, Donald R. Diamond.

Taxpayers are being asked to pay $7 million, or 64 percent more, than the $4.5 million that Triangle Ventures paid to acquire the property from the copper-mining company Asarco last summer.

One portion of Rosemont, the Helvetia ghost town, was included in the bond proposal that voters approved last May for cultural resources. Voters approved $100,000 for study and protection of Helvetia.

Huckelberry told supervisors on Dec. 29 that while Rosemont "does contain biological resource values ... none of the parcels are identified in the 2004 bond ordinance as Habitat Protection Priorities because the majority of the parcels are in holdings with the (Coronado National) Forest boundaries."

Moreover, the property mineral values require that the county conduct a sophisticated and expensive appraisal. "Since the majority of the property is not included in the 2004 bond ordinance, Pima County lacks the funds to conduct the thorough due diligence needed to determine whether this is a favorable acquisition," Huckelberry said.

The property was awash in controversy when Asarco tried to engineer a federal land swap to gain a more favorable position to commence mining operations. The proposal died, partly on the strength of opposition that in 1997 led the Board of Supervisors and City Council to pass resolutions against the swap.

The likely acquisition of the Bar V comes as the county is primed to also buy the King98 Ranch in the Altar Valley southwest of Tucson, the Bee-Mordka property in the Avra Valley west of Tucson and the Doucette property at Agua Caliente on the northeast side.

A Tucson Weekly review of records shows that the county--after last year's accelerated $11.7 million purchase of Linda Ronstadt's Sweetwater Property in the Tucson Mountains that leapfrogged typical review--has been on a methodical course to buy four other parcels since bond passage.

The 695-acre Sweetwater parcel was appraised at $11.73 million, but appraisers from Baker Peterson Baker & Associates used comparable sales that were for five properties not near Sweetwater. Four were on the northwest side and one was on the far northeast side, on Snyder Road between Melpomene Way and Houghton Road. That 199-acre parcel, platted for a 60-home subdivision, sold for $3.5 million.

In addition to Sweetwater and the A-7, the county has purchased:

· The 155-acre Ruth Baker Estate parcel on the southeast side for $225,472, including due diligence costs. Sanders K. Solot, regarded as the dean of Tucson appraisers, put the value at $250,000. For comparable sales, Solot concentrated on properties in the same region, records show.

· The 80-acre Jacobs parcel at the west end of 36th Street for $600,000, which county appraisers and officials said was an advantageous price. There was no outside appraisal done for the county on the Jacobs property. An appraisal done for the sellers a year ago put the value at $920,000.

· The 470-acre Walden Ranch, north of the Cienega Creek and south of Rincon Creek, for $1.4 million. Seventy acres were included as a donation. Solot put the total value at $920,000.

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