The Skinny


It's no secret that the State Land Department isn't concerned about preserving open space on the more than 9 million acres of trust land under its control. The agency's mission, as laid out in the Arizona Constitution, is to sell as much land as possible for as much money as possible, mostly to benefit the schoolchildren of Arizona. (Never mind that all those new houses have children who then overcrowd schools.)

That's not going to change until voters amend the Constitution--and since lawmakers are more worried about cloning than state land reform, it's probably going to take an initiative to get the question on the ballot.

In the meantime, Land Department staffers are plotting how to make sure that state land near the 3,500-acre Tortolita Mountain Park doesn't get preserved. The property in question, roughly 10,000 acres north of Oro Valley, has been the center of conservation battles for several years. (See "Broken Trust," March 3.) The county applied to set two parcels aside as part of the Arizona Preserve Initiative (a program developed in the late '90s to allow preservation of sensitive state trust land), and even succeeded in getting about 4,500 acres reclassified for conservation purposes.

Unfortunately, once some land was successfully acquired for preservation in Scottsdale and Phoenix, state officials got nervous about the constitutionality of the API and put the program on hold. That decision has left county officials sitting on bond money that's available to expand Tortolita Mountain Park, if they can find a way to acquire it without being outbid by a developer.

But now, as Oro Valley is preparing a general plan to put before voters, local Land Department staffers are trying to persuade Oro Valley to ignore plans to set aside the land as open space. In a letter earlier this month, Catherine Balzano, a Land Department planning coordinator, told town officials her agency "would prefer that there be no land uses designated on the Trust land. This change would eliminate the creation of community expectation toward future use (or non-use) or the property."

Yes, we certainly wouldn't want anyone thinking that some ironwood forest will still be standing once the Land Department is done with its work.

Balzano suggests that Oro Valley planners drop any references to open space and "show the area as a 'future growth area' or a similar designation in order to identify the need for future planning." She adds that the Land Department plans to begin working its magic in the area sometime in 2007.

She closes her letter by reminding town officials that if they want to annex the area, they'd better do as they're told.

If town officials go along with this suggestion, it sounds like their general plan is going to have a 10,000-acre loophole big enough to slip a master-planned community through. And it sounds like the State Land Department is showing its usual cooperative spirit when it comes to working with local planning efforts like the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

When is Gov. Janet Napolitano going to do something about her rogue agency?


Ronald Bruce Bigger is a petty criminal from Indiana who doesn't appear to have much to look forward to, particularly since prosecutors contend their criminologists found Bigger's DNA in the Lexus belonging to the man he is accused of brutally murdering. But Bigger hit the lottery as soon as he was arraigned for the Oct. 5 murder of Dr. David Brian Stidham. Bigger drew Richard Lougee, a smart, tough and usually relentless Tucson defense attorney assigned by the county to defend Bigger.

Alas, Lougee is out. He couldn't take the crew of Brick Storts, the Tucson lawyer who is representing Dr. Bradley Schwartz, Stidham's former employer and the man prosecutors say paid Bigger to carry out the hit.

In a hushed but animated conference at the bench of Judge Nanette Warner last week, Lougee got his leave. No one, except every lawyer in town, is talking. The correct buzz is Lougee could no longer stomach Storts crew members Ken Peasley and Joe Godoy. Lougee devoted a big part of his life to get Peasley disbarred for eliciting false testimony from Godoy, then a Tucson homicide detective, in the infamous El Grande Market murder trials.

Bigger now has Jill Thorpe, a former deputy county attorney who didn't always cotton to the bizarre rules in the county attorney's office. Look for Thorpe to sever Bigger from Schwartz and demand separate proceedings. She was tough in her first hearing, not rolling over on the Nov. 15 trial date Storts is demanding. And she didn't roll over on the immediate release of Schwartz's former ride, the Cadillac Escalade that its rightful owner, Dr. Mark Austein, is whining about wanting back. Austein strutted into court on June 28, but he won't get his prized 2002 Escalade from the sheriff's impound yard until Thorpe has a month to check it out. Thorpe also won approval for Austein, the tax-supported head of medical services at the county jail, to not see Bigger. Warner expanded that to bar Austein from examining and providing care for Schwartz as well.

Though Warner is now demanding that Schwartz pay for his own defense, taxpayers have paid Storts a total of $42,342, including for Peasley, Godoy, copying and transcription, through May 26, according to county records. The county paid Lougee $22,883 in fees and costs through June 3.


The latest waste in taxpayer-supported economic development, Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities, has chosen a Denver economic-development and agency hack, Joe Snell, as its first CEO.

Snell, 41, will be paid $150,000 a year, plus incentives. For what? To be less of a back-slapping, self-important suck up than Andrew Flores, the man who started as the director of this whole economic development mess under the wreck that was another alphabet soup agency, the Greater Tucson Economic Council or GTEC. (Why are we the only ones to remember taxpayer-supported buffoons like Flores?)

When we first saw the shallow coverage last week in the Arizona Daily Star about Snell and the other finalists--the city's economic development chief, Kendall Bert, and another Colorado economic development stooge, Tom Flavin--we expected that this was a rigged deal for Bert. That would have allowed the overpaid and chronically underperforming Bert to retire and draw a huge city pension while dipping into another pot of largely government money. But Snell topped Bert, which is saying nothing. And Flavin? Give us a break. He was the big econ-development man in Craig, a clean but tiny ranching and sometime oil community in far northwest Colorado--so far northwest that it is more Wyoming and Utah than Colorado.

Snell is automatically troubling, because he is a champion of sprawl. He's not a city man, but a suburban elitist, listing Parker as his base. That was just an odd wide spot southeast of Denver until it filled with insufferable yuppies and California transplants who contribute greatly to Denver's "Brown Cloud" and traffic congestion.


Former Senate President John Greene last week announced he wanted to take on Gov. Janet Napolitano. Greene, a pro-choice Republican who steered a moderate GOP Senate clear of a lot of nutball legislation, has already been dismissed as a RINO in conservative GOP circles.

The biggest impact of Greene's entrance into the race: a tremendous name recognition problem between him and Keith DeGreen, the only other Republican to announce his candidacy.

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