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Sweet Spot 

Is the fix in for a Tucson Mountains open-space buy?

Nearly three months before Pima County voters will decide if they want to bite off $174 million in debt for open-space purchases, the Board of Supervisors has pledged to spend up to $12.1 million for a proposed Sweetwater Preserve.

Almost no one disputes the biological value of the 695-acre parcel, but the board's action on Feb. 17, placing Sweetwater at the top of the list even before the election, spawned protests by Republicans Ray Carroll and Ann Day of disparate treatment.

Sweetwater proponents say such a purchase offers critical protection for a vast array of plant and animal life, a connection to Saguaro National Park and usefulness to the University of Arizona Desert Research Station. It's biological value is heightened because it is one of the rare remaining pieces of open space--compared to the smaller tracts available between houses--in the Tucson Mountains.

"Without this genetic diversity capability being preserved, we're going to lose more than we've lost already," said Charles Cole, who after his graduate work at the UA, became curator in charge of amphibians and reptiles at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Cole, who bought a 4.3-acre lot for $58,294 near the Sweetwater land in 1997 and built a home there, said the decision for the government to buy the 695-acre parcel should be "easy."

"We have a very large parcel, biologically extremely important, and the owners are willing to sell it as a preserve. We don't have a political battle," Cole said.

Carroll and Day question the rush and say the process is being flouted. They complain that a proposed committee is being bypassed even before members are seated: Democratic supervisors and County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry have vowed to install a new open-space oversight panel, called the Conservation Acquisition Commission, to review all open-space parcels before deals are made.

Proponents say the commission must review the Sweetwater purchase, even though supervisors voted 5-0 on Feb. 17 to catapult Sweetwater to the top of the list at no more than $12.1 million for 695 acres, or $17,410 an acre.

The sellers are investors in the Los Angeles-based Sweetwater Properties, including Tucson resident and recording artist Linda Ronstadt. They paid between $5,000 and $5,900 per acre for the property that is in one 615 parcel and two 40-acre tracts. For tax purposes, the properties are valued at $4,000 an acre--and investors have consistently appealed values issued by the county Assessor's Office on the smaller tracts, contending the properties are not worth that much.

Investors have refused to provide the county with copies of an appraisal done in April of last year.

But Sweetwaters advocates, a combination of neighbors, the Santa Fe-based Trust for Public Land, biologists and open-space activists from the heart of Tucson, have succeeded in prodding supervisors to promise to buy the Sweetwater land with a big share of the first batch of money--about $30 million--to be borrowed in June.

"True, it's expensive, but I think it's really worth it," Gayle Hartmann, a leading conservationist, told supervisors at an impromtu hearing before they voted to make the commitment to Sweetwater.

Hartmann said the threat of development hastens moves to protect Sweetwater.

Huckelberry insisted the county is not acting precipitously. The Sweetwater deal is contingent upon voter approval of the open-space question--part of a record-setting $732 million debt voters will be asked to assume--at the May 18 election. And Huckelberry said that the 2003 appraisal will be given to the county and thus made public. And the county must agree with the findings of a second appraisal.

Supervisors technically acquired an option for the Sweetwater property. The option, at no cost to the county, was engineered by the Trust for Public Land. Part of that agreement called for proponents to pay some $56,000 in property taxes on the Sweetwater parcel. Backers noted that it took them only three months to raise the first $30,000.

Republican Supervisors Ray Carroll and Ann Day, though supportive of the Sweetwater option, raised numerous questions during the Feb. 17 session about how this deal was put together. One concern is the secret direction Huckelberry, Board Chairman Sharon Bronson (a Democrat) and former Democratic Chairman Raul Grijalva gave three years ago to Sweetwater proponents to secure the option that could then be transferred to the county.

Such moves outside of public meetings of all supervisors drew fiery criticism from Grijalva 11 years ago when, for example, when a GOP majority secretly directed county administrators to lock up options on potential sites for a regional landfill.

Democrat Richard Elias, who succeeded Grijalva when Grijalva ran for Congress, took offense at Carroll's characterization.

"If this is a conspiracy, so be it," Elias said. "I'm a co-conspirator."

Elias, whose district includes the Sweetwater area, later misspoke about parcels not being identified for open-space purchase by county administrators and open-space committee members.

Sweetwater and many other parcels have indeed been identified with specificity in county documents, reports and at meetings for several years.

Carroll and Day complained that Sweetwater and Elias' district received preferential treatment. That, too, is not new. Open-space bonds approved overwhelmingly by the few--17 percent--voters who cast ballots in 1997 were re-arranged to shift money to Tucson Mountain-area lands.

Hartmann, a member of several county open space committees, said parcels in the Tortolita Mountains northwest of Tucson and in Carroll's eastside district that includes Sabino and Cienega creeks are not as threatened as Sweetwater.

Sweetwater backers have produced their own reports and Web site. The editor of the report, Thomas Wienwandt, a professional ecologist and natural-history photographer, lives near the Sweetwater property, and with his late friend, David Morton, bought 50 acres to serve as a bridge between Sweetwater and other protected land.

Carroll, a former commercial real estate broker, was not impressed.

"It that going to be deeded to Pima County?" Carroll asked.

"No," Wiewandt answered, before explaining how he and Morgan sought protections, including deed restrictions that call for only one house per 10 acres, no exotic plants, and limited clearing of land.

"Eventually, you'll develop it," Carroll said.

"No, that's not the plan at this point, and it was not David's wishes to do that," Wiewandt said.

Carroll: "It's in limbo."

Wiewandt: "Well, you know, it's really in my care, and I have the decision to do with it as I choose. Obviously, if Sweetwater Preserve is created, it certainly, I mean, I will be encouraged to do as much as I can to keep it exactly as it is."

Carroll: "But it will increase in value."

Wiewandt: "Oh, absolutely."

Hartmann rose to the defense, saying that she and others who support a Sweetwater preserve don't live near it. She told supervisors that they had no choice but to take the option to buy Sweetwater.

"We kind of got backed into a corner on time here."

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