Developing Controversy

A Pima County employee gets a sweet deal on some land marked for conservation

Trekking through Tucson Mountain Park, you see cactus fold into arroyo, ridge climb from desert floor, and bluff tumble into desiccated wash. And, increasingly, you witness the bitter blade of development, where the self-serving have erected McMansions on the very brink of dwindling nature.

But even here, at the embattled ramparts of a precious county preserve, one might hope that county officials--and particularly one charged with purchasing open space for preservation--wouldn't join this stucco orgy.

Then again, old Ben Franklin quipped that those living on hope shall die fasting.

Which brings us to Christine Curtis. She's a senior real property acquisition agent for the county's Real Property Services division. By turn, Real Property Services buys, sells, manages and appraises property for the county. That includes land to be set aside for conservation.

In this case, however, Curtis apparently cut out the middleman by appraising and buying for herself a little chunk of paradise right alongside Tucson Mountain Park. As it happens, her recently purchased real estate is among property Pima County hopes to buy for open space. In fact, Curtis' parcel was listed in 2004 as part of the county's successful, $174 million open-space bond package.

Not surprisingly, Curtis plans to sell a good share of her parcel to Pima County--no doubt at a healthy, taxpayer-funded profit--and build a house on the remainder.

Curtis bought her 14.7-acre property for $135,000 in January 2004, and a quick number-crunch reveals a shrewd if ethically questionable purchase. Nearby property sold for around $15,000 per acre in the late 1990s. Even under those outdated values, selling 10 acres would net Curtis a $15,000 profit. Still, it's certain that her land would fetch far more these days.

And it could bring much more if a cluster of homes is developed there, an option allowed under its suburban ranch (or SR) zoning. That could be in the works, given that Curtis didn't buy the land as an individual, but instead through her "Route 606 Limited Liability Company." The Weekly was unable to ascertain exactly what the "606" could be about. But perhaps it pertains to Route 606 in Virginia, considering that the Arizona Corporation Commission lists an alternative address for Route 606 LLC in Fairfax, Va.

Either way, the whole shebang peeves Joel Parris, who already owns a house right next to Tucson Mountain Park. "It stinks," he says, "to know that a person who's in charge of acquiring open spaces for the county would develop--on speculation, for profit--this beautiful property that the county had previously identified as important to the scenic corridor and perimeter of the park."

He says Curtis has already given him and other soon-to-be-neighbors an earful of guff when they questioned her.

Now, at this point, it should be firmly noted that no one--not county officials or Tucson Mountains residents--suggests that Curtis broke any laws. And her county bosses say she followed precise guidelines via conflict-of-interest disclosure forms.

Nor can the county restrict its employees from buying land, says Deputy Administrator John Bernal. "There's certainly no prohibition against a county employee owning a property that Pima County would want to acquire. "

But any transactions must be kept at arm's length, he says. "If one of our employees owns a property the county is interested in acquiring, there certainly should be no involvement by that employee from the county's end. It's obviously a conflict if (Curtis) is involved at any step along the way, with both sides of the transaction, because she would be the seller and representing the buyer."

Nonetheless, this pending deal carries a hint of ethics gone awry; while Curtis purchased her property before the May 2004 bond election, it's absurd to think she didn't know the county coveted this pretty parcel contiguous to Tucson Mountain Park.

But perhaps we'll never know. Curtis apparently wasn't in a chatty mood when the Tucson Weekly called. Instead, the county official demanded the names of those raising a ruckus over her plans. When we declined to say, she promptly hung up.

Christina Biggs is head of the Real Property division, and the boss of Christine Curtis. "We're not interested in buying all of her acreage," Biggs says, adding that Curtis' "plans are to build a house" on what remains.

"We're talking to a lot of people," Biggs adds, "and we like to buy contiguous parcels. That's why the parcel (Curtis) has ... if we included that, it would give us a number of contiguous parcels. We want to get purchase agreements or letters of interest from enough people so that we can see we have a whole group of contiguous parcels, rather than have individual parcels spotted around the area."

Biggs says the county identified the Curtis parcel as desirable "during the bond process. These parcels were listed in the bond election."

But did Curtis know the county had hopes of buying this land for open space? "She has told me that she did not know that," Biggs says.

You bet.

Anyway, the next step for Curtis will be developing the property. And that could prove tricky, according to Keith Hollinger, a county section planning supervisor. The parcel is zoned suburban-ranch, but has buffer issues, he says. "The way it's configured, there are two main segments connected by a little strip, and both of these main segments have a protected peak running through them.

"You can build on that parcel," Hollinger says, "but it would really be a challenge."

It seems that Christine Curtis plans to try, however. She's reportedly told neighbors, including Parris, that she'll be digging a well and grading a road.

Thanks to Pima County taxpayers, she could soon be chuckling all the way down that road--on her way to the bank.