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Wide Open Spaces

To the Editor,

We all love to make wild complaints about government. In fact, it's practically a national pastime. The press, on the other hand, we depend upon to "get it right"--to shed light on backroom government dealings, to reveal mismanagement or negligence. But, sometimes government does the job as effectively as it can, given available funding, and the press gets it wrong ("Land Barons," December 5). This article, about the open space portion of the 1997 Pima County bond election, gives the impression that money has been wildly misspent, and that somehow the wrong properties have been purchased. Overall, the article has a negative tone strongly suggesting that the county mismanaged the public trust.

This is just plain not true. I am the unpaid, completely volunteer, chair of the county committee formed to review the open space expenditures. In that role, I (and the other members of the committee) keep a close eye on the open space program. Overall, my view is that the right land has been purchased and that it has been purchased at a fair price--an average of $2,877per acre, which in today's hot land market is a real bargain.

Remember that the goal of this program is a long-range investment in our community's future quality. In that context let's look at the locations of the lands that have been purchased for preservation. Where are the hillsides that will remain covered with saguaros instead of being disfigured with roads and houses creeping up their sides? Where are the washes with 100-year-old mesquites growing along their banks that will continue to support natural water recharge as well as provide trail corridors into our national parks and forests? Many of these landscape features are in or near the Tucson Mountains. Land was purchased there because these were lands that need to be preserved so that future citizens can enjoy Tucson Mountain Park, prices were reasonable, there were willing sellers, and development pressures were great.

Incredibly worthwhile purchases have been made in other parts of the county as well. For example, two parcels in the northeast corner of the Tucson Basin will allow public access to continue into the Coronado National Forest along Agua Caliente Creek. The Canoa Ranch purchase is critical because, for present and future residents and visitors, it preserves a large and historic stretch of the Santa Cruz River in its natural state, and helps prevent urban sprawl from creeping south to the Santa Cruz County line. Purchases along Agua Verde Creek help provide a natural corridor between the Rincon Mountains and the Cienega Creek Preserve.

The odd thing about the purchase of open space is that, in nearly every case, the general public thinks that the land is already protected, that it is already inside Tucson Mountain Park or Tortolita Mountain Park, or Saguaro National Park or Coronado National Forest. When it is purchased, and remains in its natural state, then no one notices the difference. It is only when the bulldozers arrive, the land is scraped and the construction begins that people realize the opportunities we have missed.

And, yes, as The Weekly article points out, some parcels have been purchased that were not specifically identified in the bond. But that does not mean these lands did not merit purchase. The one mistake the county made, in my opinion, is that they defined the initial list of parcels too narrowly. Thus, when a nearby and equally worthwhile parcel became available and was purchased, it unfortunately came to be viewed as some kind of a mistake.

In addition, The Weekly article did not adequately remind readers that much of the land in the 1997 open space package was state land and the State Land Department has, in general, not fulfilled its part of the bargain in designating it for conservation purposes. This is true in spite of the fact that state law, passed in 1996, encourages communities to recommend state trust lands they would like to preserve for the future and even provides state matching funds to help pay for it.

Contrary to the statement in the article, money has not been "shifted" from one parcel to another within the voter-approved menu. The simple truth is that there is not enough money to buy all the parcels originally defined. The 1997 open space bond, which by the way passed handily with 68 percent of the vote, provided $27.9 million out of a $257 million general obligation bond package (later in the year we voted for an additional $350 million in transportation bonds for a total bond package of $607 million). We knew at the time that was not enough to buy all the listed parcels, but the political will was not there to support a larger amount. We also knew that land prices would continue to rise, as they have for decades. And that's exactly what happened. So, the fact that all the lands listed have not been purchased is not a result of some backroom government plot, but instead the expected result of insufficient funds and an acceleration in the rise of land prices.

With approximately $7 million remaining of the county open space funds, do we buy what we can and call it quits? If we follow that course of action, I think all of us who are residents of Pima County will be appalled at what our county will look like in the future. We've been saying for decades that we don't want to become another Phoenix or, worse yet, Los Angeles. What that translates to is that--as a community--we're going to have to be willing to pay private land owners and the state of Arizona so we can expand our mountain parks (Tucson Mountain Park and especially Tortolita Mountain Park), create "desert belts" that will connect our mountain islands, such as the Rincons and the Santa Ritas, and preserve ranch land.

To do that we will need more open space bonds. My hope and expectation is that the voters of Pima County will continue, as they have in the past, to support a well-formulated land purchase program. To that end, I would like to see the Board of Supervisors endorse an open space bond in the neighborhood of $200-250 million to be placed on the ballot in 2003. That amount is well within the county's bonding limit, it is relatively painless from the taxpayers' point of view and our children and grandchildren will thank us enthusiastically for the land that will be preserved.

If we choose, instead, to be stingy now, we will pay a large price over the next several decades. On the one hand is a future with unbroken suburban sprawl from the foothills of the Tortolitas south and east to the Cochise and Santa Cruz county lines--and we think traffic is bad now! On the other hand is a metropolitan area broken up by large open spaces containing parks, ranches, wildlife corridors and access to the national forest. Let's make the choice that will help give us the future we want. Let's encourage our elected officials to endorse an open space bond and let's ask our friends in the press to give us fair, unbiased coverage of how the money has been spent.

--Gayle Hartmann

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