Forbidden Fantasy?

If the State Land Department has its way, a legendary local bike trail could soon become another cluster of apartments and condos

Chuck Boyer has a big grin and a fresh wound when he greets me at the entrance of Fantasy Island. A minor mishap earlier this warm March morning sent him tumbling down a hill, leaving a patch of bloody flesh around his elbow.

But it takes more than a little spill to slow down Boyer, who, at 68, happens to be the oldest racer competing in the Mountain Bike Association of Arizona. Besides, as the original trailblazer at Fantasy Island, he's already given gallons of blood, sweat and tears to this network of desert flat-track that crisscrosses roughly 335 acres of mostly state land near Irvington and Houghton roads.

"I've got a few scars over the years," he chuckles.

Then we're off on our tour, tearing up and down hills and across flatlands on a trail that winds through a forest of cactus, creosote and palo verde. Boyer points out different twists and turns--the Shooting Range, Tea Cup Hill, the Little Grand Canyon. We ride past displays of art on the edge of the trail, such as a reassuring tombstone on a treacherous descent. (The epitaph: "Here Rests K.C. Stern/Pulled 3G's on a 1G turn.")

Boyer's advice for handling tough moments on the trail? "When in doubt, get back and shout!" What he means is, put your weight over the rear tire and let out a loud "Wahoo!"

We stop occasionally so Boyer can point out hidden features, like an eagle's nest in a saguaro's arms or a hillside cave that's home to a Gila monster. Boyer has stumbled across all kinds of wildlife out here: coyotes, rattlers and, one time, some sort of critter he calls an Arizona Apache badger.

Let there be no doubt: Fantasy Island is one hell of a lot of fun, as anyone who has shot down The Shaft or hurtled through The Half-Pipe can attest. It's also addictive: The more you ride it, the better you get. The better you get, the faster you go. The faster you go, the more fun you have.

In the six years since Boyer invited a gang of friends for an inaugural ride, Fantasy Island has assumed mythic status in the cycling world. Mountain-bike racers who visit Tucson use the course to hone their skills. Law-enforcement agencies train on the property. Just a few months ago, bike manufacturer Shimano, a Japanese component maker, brought a crew of reporters to test its 2005 line at Fantasy Island. That led to a rave review in last month's edition of Mountain Bike Action magazine, which noted there's "something pure and raw about this place."

Seems like just about everybody's happy about Fantasy Island--except for officials at the State Land Department, the government agency charged with overseeing the property. The Land Department has a much different vision for Fantasy Island: condos, apartments and lofts as part of the new urban village of tomorrow.

Fantasy Island, as it works out, is among the 9.7 million acres of state trust land, which was bequeathed to various beneficiaries--mostly public schools--in the early days of statehood. The Arizona Constitution requires state land to be sold for its highest and best use, which means the land is auctioned for the highest price it can bring--and Fantasy Island is among the parcels the officials at the State Land Department want to see sold for development within the next two years.

When Boyer first starting carving Fantasy Island out of a series of old cow paths and hiking trails, he had no idea he'd end up in the middle of one of the most intractable political fights: state trust land reform.

Boyer got bit by the biking bug late in life, but he's made up for lost time. About a dozen years ago, he was wrapping up a career in auto parts and service when a buddy challenged him to go on a mountain-bike ride. Boyer, who was then smoking about two packs a day, rode all of 20 feet before he toppled over.

But he stuck with it, giving up the smokes and learning how to pilot a bike. When a favorite spot got bulldozed for development in the mid-'90s, Boyer told his friends he'd find a new spot for them to ride.

He headed off in the direction of an old wildcat dump he remembered from his bird-hunting days. The state land, like many other parcels around the state, was being used for cattle grazing, but Arizona law allows recreational use of state land by anyone who buys a $15 annual permit. Boyer spent the next couple of years mapping the trail network. On April 6, 1999, he took some buddies on the first ride of what he called the Lone Cactus Loop, named in part for a tall saguaro at the trailhead. (If you don't salute the saguaro as you start your ride, Boyer warns, he'll get you on your way back.)

At the end of that first ride, a friend looked over at him and said, "Chuck, this ain't the Lone Cactus Loop. This is Fantasy Island."

With its twists, turns, dips and climbs, Fantasy Island was an instant hit. Today, it boasts roughly 12 miles of trails on 335 acres of state land, with another loop that reaches out toward Valencia Road.

Bikers use the place night and day. Boyer likes to stop atop hills on the track and watch for flashes of helmets or shirts elsewhere on the trail. Sometimes at night, he sits on the patio at nearby McGraw's Saloon to have a burger and watch the headlamps on the night riders. "They look just like fireflies," he says.

Jon Shouse, chair of the newly formed Fantasy Island Conservation Alliance, says the course offers the best off-road biking on Tucson's eastside. It's also great because the degree of challenge depends entirely on how fast a rider wants to go.

"It's probably the only place in Tucson where a beginner can go learn his skills," says Shouse. "It's not technical enough that you're gonna get killed riding it, but it's technical enough to be fun and get more experience."

Shouse is finding plenty of support for the Fantasy Island Conservation Alliance from groups like the Pima Trails Association, the Urban Trails Association, the Sonoran Desert Mountain Bicyclists and nearby neighborhood associations.

But the State Land Department continues to view Fantasy Island as a problem area rife with trespassers who don't bother getting a permit to use state land, says Richard Hubbard, the Land Department's deputy commissioner.

For example, having a company like Shimano bring a crew of reporters to Fantasy Island without permission from the Land Department is "an extreme violation, because the trust is losing money," says Hubbard. "It's a difficult thing for us to condone, because the trust should be getting some revenue for that."

Hubbard suggests that even users who have recreational permits are stretching the rules.

"An intense use of the property by a significant number of people at the same time is not really what the recreational permit is for," Hubbard says. "It's really for individuals and families to go out for recreation."

But supporters of Fantasy Island point out that the Land Department appears to have sanctioned the use of the property. In years past, staffers have helped build gates and even set up a table at Fantasy Island to sell recreational permits.

Such legal quibbling could soon be academic; Hubbard says the property will be among the first parcels sold when the state begins auctioning off the land within the next two years.

Fantasy Island sits on the northern edge of the Houghton Area Master Plan, or HAMP, an ambitious effort to master-plan 16.9 square miles, or 10,800 acres, along Houghton Road between Irvington Road and the city's southern boundary, about a mile south of Interstate 10. City officials hope the HAMP will guide new development in a way that provides for the roads, parks and other demands that accompany growth. For example, the HAMP promises to consider "the treatment of natural and cultural resources, stressing preservation and protection, as well as integration of natural features in the built environment."

The biggest speculator in the HAMP happens to the State Land Department, which owns just less than 8,000 acres, which comes out to around three-fourths of the property within the HAMP. Given that the value of state land within the HAMP will skyrocket once the plan lays the groundwork for changing the current low-density zoning to allow for many more homes, it's no surprise the Land Department has worked closely with Tucson through this process.

The HAMP draft designates Fantasy Island as medium-density housing, which translates into an average of at least eight residential units per acre--apartments, lofts, townhomes, condos, duplexes and the like.

Shouse argues that the city should follow the example of Pima County, which regularly requires open-space and other concessions from land owners who seek rezonings and plan changes.

"The land use designations proposed for the state trust lands located within the HAMP will vastly increase the values of these trust lands, and we're disappointed that the State Land Department is doing nothing for the community in return," Shouse wrote in a recent letter to Gov. Janet Napolitano in the hope of persuading her to convince Land Commissioner Mark Winkleman to hold off on selling the land.

But Hubbard says the Land Department isn't inclined to go for such horse-trading.

"It all comes down the trust mission, which is to maximize revenue for the trust," Hubbard says.

Jan Lesher, who heads up Napolitano's Tucson office, doesn't offer much hope that the governor is going to step into the fight. She says if the city decides to preserve the property, officials will need "to purchase the land through the auction process."

The bottom line, says Hubbard: The people interested in saving Fantasy Island will have to persuade city officials the area shouldn't be medium-density housing; raise enough money to purchase the property; and then put in a winning bid at auction when the department sells the property.

"Those are pretty hard steps for folks to do," Hubbard says.

Hard or not, supporters of Fantasy Island are engaged in step one: Pressuring the city to change Fantasy Island's designation in the HAMP.

The HAMP is now being reviewed by the City Planning Commission, which was scheduled to meet both this week and next to review the plan, including concerns about Fantasy Island. After the commission's review, the HAMP will have to be approved by the Tucson City Council.

Democratic Councilwoman Shirley Scott, whose eastside Ward 4 includes Fantasy Island, says the HAMP should show Fantasy Island as a park.

"It's what the people want," Scott says. "This is not to be dictated from up above by Maricopa County. This is in our area. This is a green space that's greatly cared for and loved."

More recently, Republican Councilman Fred Ronstadt, who is seeking re-election this year, announced he wanted the city to explore ways to preserve the trails, although he doesn't yet support a change in the HAMP's draft designation of medium-density housing on the property. Ronstadt says that until he reviews all possible options, "I'm not interested in formalizing anything."

But as long as the Land Department insists on selling the land, there aren't many options on the table.

One effort to lay the groundwork for preserving Fantasy Island has been brushed aside by the Land Department. In June 2000, the Pima Trails Association tried to get Fantasy Island included in the Arizona Preserve Initiative, or API, which was designed to the purchase of sensitive desert lands for conservation. But the API program has stalled over a potential legal challenge, and Fantasy Island's application was abandoned after staff determined the Pima Trails Association didn't have the financial resources to purchase the property, according to Hubbard.

"We did not pursue it any further," Hubbard says.

Other efforts to reform the state trust land system are moving slowly, if at all. The most recent comprehensive effort collapsed in the Legislature last year; other piecemeal proposals have gone nowhere this session. Various ideas for a statewide initiative campaign are being floated, but the complexity of the problem makes a simple fix impossible (see "Broken Trust," March 3).

Napolitano recently called on the Legislature to come up with a reform proposal, but prospects for any significant action this session appears dim, says Rep. Jonathan Paton, who has joined the fight to preserve Fantasy Island.

Paton, a freshman Republican whose District 30 includes Fantasy Island, says the State Land Department should hold off on selling the property to give supporters a chance to save the land.

"It's an extraordinary situation that has turned out a lot better than a neighborhood of houses ever could," says Paton, who has lobbied in the past for local homebuilders. "It's a treasure that we'd be stupid to let go. Yeah, it's a nuisance for the government, but we should be thankful that it's there."

But Hubbard warns that even if some sort of statewide reform of state trust land were to succeed, most talk about preserving state land has centered on saving parcels with high ecological values, not recreational facilities.

"I don't think the idea of conservation lands would include such an intense recreational use that occurs on Fantasy Island," Hubbard says.

One idea being floated by the city planning staff is creating a new bike park elsewhere on the eastside, but the offer has yet to win over Fantasy Island fans.

As the mastermind of Fantasy Island, Boyer remains skeptical that the park could be re-created elsewhere. Although he's designed other courses, including one in the Tortolitas for Cottonwood Properties' Dove Mountain development, he says they can't match Fantasy Island's unique terrain.

"It was a piece of junk land that everybody forgot about," Boyer says. "If they'd had any consideration for it, they would have cleaned it up."

Boyer has a simpler vision: Why not a park that includes the bike trails alongside soccer and baseball fields for all the new residents who are moving to the city's eastside?

"I would just love to see it be a city park," Boyer says. "Just preserve it, so our kids and grandkids can see it."

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