Land Barons

County open space purchases top $24 million since '97 vote, mostly in Tucson Mountains, Canoa Ranch.

Enriched by a successful bond election five years ago, the Board of Supervisors has blown through nearly $24 million to buy up properties in the Tucson Mountains and Canoa Ranch. Some of the purchases thus far exceed the acreage and price tag presented to Pima County voters in the open space plan.

The few who cast ballots in May 1997--just 17.6 percent of 404,000 voters--were generous. They supported supervisors' plans to incur the biggest debt in county history for open space acquisition at $27.9 million as part of a record $361 bond package that included sewers, libraries, parks, juvenile court and detention, jails and other county facilities. Less than five months later, voters returned to the polls to approve $350 million in bonds for road improvements.

Unlike the transportation bond program, mired in delays, overspending, favoritism in bidding and mismanaged schedules, the open space program has moved along briskly.

Using voter-approved bonds, the county has bought 7,100 acres, at an average of $2,877 an acre, in the last five years. Protecting land and habitat, particularly in the Tucson Mountains, the county has benefited both speculators and the needy. For example, Kelley Rollings and Lloyd Perper made nearly $6 million by selling 773 acres of raw land along West Ajo Way south of Tucson Mountain Park. The Catholic Diocese of Tucson was able to unload, for $636,462, 216 acres of donated land that would have been nearly impossible to develop.

Supervisors have not been confined by voters. They have spent $1.4 million from the general fund--the same property-tax-fueled account that pays for cops and jail operations--to preserve a 500-acre portion of Buckelew Farms, popularized by its annual Halloween pumpkin patch and hayrides, and the square-mile Lord's Ranch within Ironwood National Monument. The county's nearly $1 billion budget has been so flush that supervisors, in the last two years, have moved $2.5 million into an open space acquisition fund that can supplement the bonds as well as serve as the county's share under the Arizona Preserve Initiative.

And supervisors neither sought nor needed voter approval to take $1.1 million in flood control taxes to complete the 2001 purchase of 4,700 acres of the 6,250-acre Canoa Ranch south of Green Valley.

Moreover, supervisors have repeatedly shifted money from within the voter-approved menu. They have stripped some projects, including:

· $650,000 for a decades-delayed shooting range. The money was moved to Canoa Ranch purchases. The county has now tapped a state grant to build the range near the Pima County Fairgrounds on the southeast side.

· $500,000 for an open space gateway at the base of the Mount Lemmon Highway. Money was moved to Canoa Ranch.

· $1 million to buy parcels threatening Sabino Canyon. The money was moved to Canoa Ranch.

The shifts, says County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, are no mystery. They are the result, he says, of the willingness of supervisors to cater to Raúl Grijalva, the Democratic Supervisor who gave up county office after 13 years to successfully run for Congress. "The changes were driven by the board, which was driven by Supervisor Grijalva," Huckelberry said.

Grijalva succeeded in moving millions of dollars to buy up properties to expand the 19,646-acre Tucson Mountain Park, created in 1929, and to preserve other parcels in the northern and southern ends of the Tucson Mountains that residents did not want to see developed.

The county spent $14.6 million for Tucson Mountain Park properties in the last five years, including $12.3 million from 1997 bonds. That exceeds--by more than $5 million--the amount voters and taxpayers were told would be spent in the area.

The Rollings-Perper purchase typifies the shifting priorities. The open space plan called for $1.75 million to be spent in the Robles Pass area south of Tucson Mountain Park. Instead, supervisors ignored an appraisal that put the value at $4.1 million and spent $5.97 million or $7,729 an acre.

"This was a very important piece," says Huckelberry, a one-time county road builder who has pushed for large-tract open space purchases beginning with the Cienega Creek preserve in the 1980s. "It was the largest privately owned parcel in the area. It has frontage on Ajo Way and brings the Tucson Mountain Park south and connects with Manzanita Park."

In the Gates Pass area, where Grijalva led supervisors to downzone some properties, supervisors paid $158,975 for 10 acres from one of the families with whom they remain locked in litigation over the nearby downzonings.

Another expensive acquisition that prevented development at Saguaro Cliffs added 155 acres to Tucson Mountain Park for $1.55 million. The goal, Huckelberry says, was to bring Tucson Mountain Park to Gates Pass at Camino de Oeste.

South of Green Valley, acquisition of a majority chunk of Canoa Ranch cost taxpayers $6.6 million even though the open space bond program allocated only $2 million for the ranch. Grijalva, who asserts his late father once was a cowboy at Canoa, pushed supervisors to shift $2.5 million in open space bond funds as well as flood control, bond interest and other county funds to Canoa.

Some of the money was moved from congested Sabino Canyon, which Huckelberry says is less threatened than other areas and has actually reached an "equilibrium" between development and open parcels.

Canoa, in the hands of Lowell and David Williamson's Fairfield Homes, was one of Grijalva's chief battles from 1995 until the county purchase of 4,700 acres in March of 2001. Fairfield, creators of the adjoining retirement community of Green Valley, planned residential and commercial development on 3,668 acres while leaving 1,575 acres on both banks of the Santa Cruz River as open space. The company won a rezoning in 1997 for a 298-acre parcel on the west side of Interstate 19.

Fairfield got its money back. It paid Pennzoil $6.4 million for Canoa in 1994, according to county records, and was left with 1,252 acres to develop. And for all the purported animosity between Grijalva and the Williamsons, the Fairfield developers, they supported Grijalva's run for Congress. Together, the Williamsons gave Grijalva $3,980 for his campaign.

Huckelberry says Canoa and the parcels in the Tucson Mountains were "worthy" purchases. With $7 million remaining in open space bond funds and wish lists that are millions of dollars higher, the county may begin to look again at big expanses that he pioneered along the Cienega and Empirita Ranch, southeast of Tucson, more than a dozen years ago.

Purchases are less costly per acre for ranches and bigger parcels on the outlying areas. Much of that will depend on the success of Huckelberry's ambitious Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, which seeks to set aside vast portions of unincorporated Pima County by outright purchase or through tight land-use restrictions.

Voters are likely to be asked to fund that plan, at a cost many times higher than the 1997 open space bond.

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