LAND SCAM: The Supreme Court ruled last week that voters will have a chance to vote on Prop 100, the portion of Growing Smarter Plus that lawmakers sent to the ballot during the last legislative session.

Opponents of the referendum had sued to have it tossed off the ballot, claiming it violated the state constitution's rule against combining too many separate measures into a single proposition. Although a Maricopa County Superior Court judge agreed with that assessment, the Supreme Court reversed that decision and ordered the prop restored to the ballot.

That's bad news for 70 conservation organizations across the state, which are united in opposition to Prop 100 because it would set back preservation efforts. Among the opponents are groups like the Nature Conservancy and the Sonoran Institute, which normally steer clear of controversial fights like this.

The campaign against Prop 100 is now gearing up. Locally, the effort is being co-chaired by Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson and Sonoran Institute director Luther Propst, who was the lone environmentalist on the Growing Smarter Commission dedicated to developing strategies for managing the state's explosive growth.

Propst and Bronson both sat on the Growing Smarter Commission, and both say some decent recommendations did come out of the process.

"We worked hard on it," says Propst, who isn't exactly one of those radical envirolitigists from the Center for Biological Diversity. "The commission came up with recommendations that I wasn't entirely pleased with, but that were at least a good-faith effort to deal with some growth issues."

The commission offered three main recommendations:

· Reform the state's current state land policies, which insist state land must be put to "highest and best use," which has always been interpreted as meaning it must be sold off for the highest amount of money. That has meant the land has been sold to developers who build strip malls and tract houses.

· Grant counties more authority over so-called "wildcat" subdivisions that are built without infrastructure standards.

· Devise a program that would allow the state to purchase development rights to prevent ranches and farms from becoming subdivisions.

Unfortunately, when the recommendations reached the legislature, they were butchered by lawmakers. The legislation that emerged as Growing Smarter Plus bore little resemblance to the recommendations that had come out of the commission.

"It was, in the end, just cynical on the part of the legislature to pass something that wasn't what the commission recommended and advertise it as if it were the result of that public process," Propst says.

One of the worst elements, says Propst, was Prop 100, which purports to help conservation by setting aside up to a whopping 3 percent of state trust land for conservation. It also allows swaps of state land and provides free land for public schools. Sounds OK--until you look at the details.

The 3 percent cap means that only 279,000 acres of state land can be set aside for conservation--and the process for setting aside that land is a complex maze under the control of the legislature.

A close look at the first 70,000 acres proposed for conservation reveals what a hoax Prop 100 really is. "That selection process was done without any kind of peer review, any ecological input; scientists didn't decide it," Propst says. "It was done overnight in a rush and if you look at those 70,000 acres, it's land that's basically useless from a conservation perspective. The goal was to find land that had no development value."

Among the sites: Pistol Hill near Colossal Cave, a steep climb on which houses couldn't be built anyway. "If you go to Pistol Hill, you almost need ropes to get up there," says Propst. "That's not a conservation decision."

Even more absurd is the selection of Rogers Lake near Flagstaff, which is underwater several months of the year. Not likely anyone will be building anything there, unless it's housing for sea monkeys. "The lake itself was included in the 70,000 acres, but the shoreline was not," Propst points out.

The main reason lawmakers sent Prop 100 to the ballot was to defuse public support for the Citizens Growth Management Initiative, which would establish strict growth boundaries and require cities and counties to collect impact fees to cover the costs of development. The development community hopes that voters, if given a choice between two measures, will pick the less controversial one, even though the two proposals don't conflict with one another.

"The legislature is holding up this Prop 100 as if it's some kind of an alternative to giving counties more authority to regulate growth, and they're two completely different issues," says Propst, who isn't taking a public stand on Prop 202.

If they can defeat Prop 100, the next step is--you guessed it--an initiative drive for a ballot prop that would really straighten out state land policy on the 2002 ballot.

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