Dumping Ground

An old landfill could scuttle a plan to preserve Tumamoc Hill

Every Monday evening, Rick Karl leads a team of runners up the steep slopes of Tumamoc Hill on Tucson's westside.

"There are no cars to deal with. There are a lot of people, and it's just a good training hill," Karl says. "Plus, the view on the top is awesome."

An archaeologist with the Arizona State Museum, Karl has also done digs into Tumamoc Hill's prehistoric past.

"There's a long pre-history up there," Karl says. "I think we went back to the Archaic period."

But as state-trust land, Tumamoc Hill is now under the control of the State Land Department, which is obligated under the Arizona Constitution to auction off the property to the highest bidder, with the proceeds dedicated to education. That means a private developer could someday snatch up the parcel to build homes.

"I'd hate to see any housing development going on out there," Karl says.

He's not alone. Preserving Tumamoc Hill is a notion near and dear to many local conservationists.

To stave off future development, Pima County has asked the state to auction off 320 acres on the west side of Tumamoc Hill in February 2009. Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry hopes that the county can buy the property at its appraised value of $4.7 million by leveraging roughly $2.4 million in open-space bond dollars with $2.4 million from the Arizona Preserve Initiative, a state program designed to help preserve trust land.

Huckelberry says it's important to purchase the property for several reasons, including protecting the UA's Desert Laboratory, which has been studying the desert from atop Tumamoc Hill for more than a century.

"It would maintain the historical and cultural significance of the Desert Lab," Huckelberry says. "And I think everyone has to remember that Tumamoc is sacred to a number of Native American tribes in Arizona."

Huckelberry hopes that the sluggish economy will discourage other buyers. "Like Jim Click says, there's no better time to buy," Huckelberry notes.

But there's a snag in the deal: The parcel includes an old city landfill that was operated in the 1960s. To this day, city officials aren't sure what was tossed into the dump, which was operated without today's environmental standards.

If the county buys the property, it would become liable for a portion of future cleanup costs, along with the city and any other parties that dumped there decades ago.

Concerns over that liability torpedoed a move by the county to purchase the land a few years ago, when the county couldn't come to an agreement with the city.

Huckelberry is now asking the city to take possession of the portion of the property that includes the landfill if the county goes ahead with the purchase of the Tumamoc parcel. He has county attorneys working out a deal with the city to ensure the county has no liability.

"We never dumped in it; we never owned it; we never leased it; we never did anything with it," says Huckelberry, who would be happy to give the parcel to the city for free.

"We'll even buy it for them," he says.

But Tucson City Manager Mike Hein doesn't see an old landfill as much of a Christmas present.

"There's no such thing as a free old landfill," says Hein, who remains hopeful that some sort of deal can be worked out. City officials say that the primary responsibility for a future cleanup already rests with the city.

"Everybody wants to be fair," says Hein. "We understand we have an obligation as the former operator of the active landfill. We appreciate Pima County moving this item forward, and we don't anticipate any problems between the city and the county."

But Hein stops short of agreeing to the notion of having the city take ownership of the old landfill, saying only: "I would hope the county continues to partner with us."

Earlier this month, the Tucson City Council voted unanimously to support the county's purchase of the property, but they sidestepped the question of taking title to the landfill property.

Ward 1 Councilwoman Regina Romero, who represents the area, says she wants to see the county buy the property, noting that voters have supported open-space bonds to make the purchase.

"I think it's very clear that the residents want Tumamoc Hill as open space," Romero says. "It has so much history. It's not just the open-space component. There is so much important research being done there by the University of Arizona."

While she doesn't rule out supporting a plan to have the city take possession of the landfill, Romero says she's still waiting to see what sort of agreement Hein can work out with Huckelberry.

"I give all of my trust to Mike Hein that he will make this happen," Romero says.

If the city doesn't agree to take possession of the landfill, Huckelberry says the county may have to walk away from purchasing Tumamoc.

"But that's the last alternative," Huckelberry says. "We want to see this property preserved."

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