Water Wait 

The city of Tucson teams with Pima County to fight for Painted Hills

Before the Tucson City Council voted unanimously on June 8 to delay a request to annex the almost 300 acres in the saguaro-covered Painted Hills property, it looked like any hope to preserve the area was finally lost to development.

According to Councilwoman Regina Romero, even after the council voted to delay annexation, it still seemed like most of the estimated 10,000 saguaros on the hills would most likely be bladed to make way for about 250 homes, until something amazing began taking place this past month—actual dialogue between the city and attorneys for the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System, owners of the development property.

"Just last month it looked like there was no solution except houses out there. Now we brought people to the table to talk about how we can preserve the area. Now, that in itself is really, really good and a big win for open space," Romero says.

The discussions between the two entities have stalled a $46 million lawsuit filed by the pension fund in May. Lawyers for the pension fund from Lewis and Roca and Tucson city attorneys were expected to head to trial on Aug. 23.

Romero says the goal is to continue talks this month between the city and pension fund to figure out a way to purchase the property that's outside the city limits, west of downtown and south of Speedway Boulevard, between Speedway and Anklam Road. How the property is purchased remains undecided and will need support from Pima County, too.

The pension fund bought the property for $27 million in 2006 from John Tate (see "Saguaro's Sake," April 17, 2008).

The property was identified for preservation by the county as a "gateway to Tucson Mountain Park" in the 1997 and 2004 open space bond ordinances. County residents twice voted for Pima County to purchase the property in those bond elections; however, the county each time reportedly wound up short of funds. The pension fund outbid the county to purchase the property from Tate. In one year the purchase price of the property went from $4.25 million to $27 million; of course, that was right before the Great Recession.

However, it isn't the economy holding back the pension plan's development, but water. In 2008, the city created an interim policy on water that prevents Tucson Water from agreeing to provide water service outside the city limits—a policy that has offered encouragement to Painted Hills advocates who hoped it could prevent the development from accessing needed water in order to build a subdivision.

"Their attorney came to the city of Tucson attorneys and said, 'We are ready to get our water,'" Romero says. But the interim water policy, now a permanent part of Tucson water policy, prevented them from being able to connect to any of the water mains that run up Speedway Boulevard.

The pension resorted to annexation as a way to go around the water policy, by bringing Painted Hills inside the city limits.

"That's when the mayor and council got it on the table, and there was an actual vote," Romero says. "I, of course, voted against it. But credit should go to Councilman Paul Cunningham, who brought it back for reconsideration (on June 8). At that time, all of us wanted to have that discussion again before we annexed. I said, 'Let's just try to have a dialogue with the (pension fund) and (Pima) County. My colleagues agreed with me and we delayed the annexation."

Romero says the city attorneys and pension attorneys are discussing different options, from a land swap to allowing the city and county to purchase the property—although Romero says she is not sure how close an offer could be to the $27 million the pension fund originally paid.

"We brought back the conversation and the good thing about it is that the attorneys have delayed the lawsuit and there are conversations on how all of us can create a win-win situation," Romero says. "At least (the pension) is a willing partner."

Romero also credits the leadership of Pima County Supervisor Richard Elías, as well as Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

"I cannot talk in detail about the conversations that are happening, but it seems it is heading in a very good direction," Romero says. The city has $3.7 million in urban space funds dedicated to purchase open space land, but so far any land identified has had unwilling sellers, or its purchase is not considered urgent.

"Theoretically the mayor and council can use that money to support purchasing Painted Hills. One of the options is to use those funds as a down payment and then run the (additional funds) in the next Pima County bond election (in 2011 or 2012) to purchase the rest of Painted Hills," Romero says. "Even through our funds are designated for urban open space, my colleagues and I feel there is urgency in Painted Hill."

Elías says he's optimistic "for the first time in a long time" about these new discussions between the pension attorneys, and the city and county regarding Painted Hills.

As far as the land swap idea goes, Elías says swaps are usually far too complex to consider, although it's not impossible. But helping the city purchase the property is something he thinks there is support for in Pima County government.

"Look where we are now. A year ago there was no hope (of saving Painted Hills)," Elías says. "What you're seeing now is the result of a lot of support from people who live in Tucson and Pima County who want to save Painted Hills, and that has created a lot of political will. Fortunately, the stars have aligned in many ways."

Elías says it remains unclear when Pima County will have another bond election with open space on the ballot.

"Open space is going to be part of the next bond election," he says. "When it happens, we are still not sure. If indeed there is an opportunity there to include Painted Hills, I assure you there's going to be a lot of support to make sure it is included in the bond."

Before that happens, Elías says the idea of the city using its urban space funding needs to come before the City Council for a vote, and then before the Board of Supervisors.

"We want to make sure to acknowledge the jurisdictional decision (of the city), then we'll give it a final approval, but frankly we'd be hard-pressed to disagree with (the city's decision)," Elías says.

"People need to keep an eye on this deal as it progresses, because it is complicated and it is going to be increasingly difficult as we move forward. Those who support this need to make sure that the political will does not become displaced."

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