Trade Imbalance

For the sixth time since 1990, Arizona voters are again being asked to approve land swaps

Albert Einstein once postulated that insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

By that definition, we've got some positively certifiable lawmakers up in Phoenix. For the sixth time in 14 years, legislators are asking Arizona voters to let the state back into the business of swapping State Trust Land.

This time, the prop is picking up patriotic appeal by flying under the banner of the Military Base Preservation Initiative--a title that has environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, tossing around terms like "political deception" and "mislead the public."

That's because Prop 100 is nearly identical to 2002's Prop 101, which narrowly failed at the ballot box, except now lawmakers have shoehorned in some language about protecting military bases.

Supporters of Prop 100 say that allowing land swaps, when properly considered, will allow the state to better use available resources.

"We view this as a potential win-win situation," says Joe Sigg, director of government relations for the Arizona Farm Bureau.

But opponents argue that it will actually accelerate sprawl while doing nothing to preserve Arizona's bases.

"This is not going to do anything to protect military bases," says Sandy Bahr, the legislative lobbyist for the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter. "They're just trying to play on people's fears."

But it's more than cynical packaging that has the greens concerned. As Bahr points out, the taxpayers often end up on the short end when land is traded.

"The public normally gets ripped off on land swaps," says Bahr. "What happens with these land swaps is the public land is undervalued, and the private land is valued more highly, and we, the public, come out on the short end of things."

Just take a look at what goes on at the federal level. A June 2000 General Accounting Office report on land swaps showed that the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service were frequently taken for a ride. In one appalling example, a developer grabbed a parcel of federal land allegedly worth $763,000 and flipped it the same day for $4.6 million. The same developer also swapped for a parcel allegedly worth $504,000 and sold it on the same day for $1 million.

The GAO study also showed that, thanks to shaky appraisals in three Nevada land deals during the '90s, the U.S. Forest Service ended up with land that was overvalued by a total of $8.8 million.

"We continue to believe that the Congress should consider directing the agencies to discontinue their land exchange programs because of the many problems identified and their inherent difficulties," the GAO recommended.

If voters pass Prop 100, they'd be opening up about 9 million acres of State Trust Land to the same kind of shenanigans. State Trust Land, originally set aside by the federal government at statehood, is held in trust for various beneficiaries, primarily Arizona's schoolchildren. The state is obligated to dispose of the land at its highest and best value.

In 1936, the federal government loosened restrictions on the land so that it could be swapped for other private or public land. As you'd expect, plenty of cozy deals followed, including one spectacular swap in the 1980s that allowed developer David Mehl to trade about 33 acres near La Paloma for 3,400 acres on the now-booming northwest side. Mehl's land is home to the Dove Mountain development, where some home lots are now selling for more than a million dollars apiece.

In 1990, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that the although state law permitted land swaps, the state Constitution had never been properly amended to allow them, putting an end to the practice.

Ever since, lawmakers have been trying to convince the public to let the state back into the business, with ballot props in 1990, '92, '94, 2000, '02 and now again this year.

Although the proposition allows only swaps between public bodies, Bahr points out that the federal government or other agencies could end up acting as a middleman in an exchange.

Bahr argues the state should follow the same advice the GAO recommended for federal land exchanges.

"If government thinks it should sell land, it should sell it and if it thinks its necessary to buy land, it should buy it," she says. "That way you get a more honest price."

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