Trick Or Treat?

The Governor Says Prop 100 Will Help Preserve Open Space. So Why Are 70 Conservation Groups Across The State Opposing It?

DURING HIS WORK on the state's Growing Smarter Commission, Luther Propst figures he made more than four dozen trips to Phoenix to hammer out strategies to better manage Arizona's explosive growth.

These days, he's wondering if it was all a waste of gas.

The executive director of the Sonoran Institute, Propst was the lone environmentalist on the 15-member commission, which also included legislators, state employees and other stakeholders.

"We worked hard on it," says Propst. "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."

That was then, and this is now: Propst is co-chair of the Southern Arizona effort to defeat Proposition 100, the Growing Smarter Plus referendum placed on the ballot by the state legislature earlier this year.

It's safe to say that when it comes to Growing Smarter, Propst is off the reservation.

SO WHAT HAPPENED? According to Propst, the Arizona Legislature butchered the commission's recommendations so severely that he simply couldn't support Prop 100.

Sandy Bahr, the Sierra Club's legislative lobbyist, tells a similar story. "I don't think the recommendations from the Growing Smarter commission were very strong," she says. "But in the area relating to state trust land, it looked for a while that they might actually come up with a measure that at least got us partially there, if not all the way. But as soon as those recommendations got to the legislature, the governor basically ceded total control of that package to (Senate Majority Leader) Rusty Bowers. I really think a big part of the reason it's as bad as it is, is because Bowers was in the driver's seat and they basically let him have everything he wanted. He's doing the bidding of the development interests without a doubt."

State Sen. Ann Day, a Republican who also served on the Growing Smarter Commission, agrees that lawmakers, led by Bowers, severely weakened the legislation. "We came up with reasonable compromises and unfortunately the bill didn't end up that way, so I was disappointed," says Day, a candidate for the District 1 seat on the Pima County Board of Supervisors. Despite the flaws, she's still supporting Prop 100.

Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson, who is co-chairing the effort against Prop 100 with Propst, is more critical. "I was on several Growing Smarter panels and I think that the recommendations that came out of those panels were very reasonable and had the legislature accepted those recommendation we would not be looking at the Citizens Growth Management Initiative, because we would have had reasonable land-use tools," says Bronson. "I don't see any prospect, given the makeup of the Arizona Legislature, in the next five to eight years of cities and counties getting any reasonable land-use tools. And so the only alternative right now, especially when we try to control how we grow and where we grow, is the Citizens Growth Management Initiative."

Propst is remaining neutral in the fight over Prop 202, but in the campaign against Prop 100, he and Bronson are joined by 70 conservation organizations across the state, which are united in opposition to the Growing Smarter Plus referendum because they say it would set back preservation efforts.

It's an unusually high-profile role for Propst, whose organization, the Sonoran Institute, includes legendary land speculator Don Diamond on the board of directors. (Diamond missed the meeting in which the board voted to kick in $20,000 to the anti-100 campaign.) The Sonoran Institute normally avoids conflict in favor of developing consensus. Likewise, the Nature Conservancy, which mainly works to purchase development rights and land preserves, is opposing Prop 100.

Having mainstream environmental groups leading the charge against Prop 100 doesn't help position Growing Smarter as a serious attempt to handle the state's growing pains. The program was born in 1998, when lawmakers realized the Sierra Club and the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest were spearheading an initiative effort to curb sprawl with a growth management package. In response, Gov. Jane Dee Hull, development attorneys and lawmakers crafted Growing Smarter, a package of legislation they said would address the problems created by growth.

Crippled by a late start, the 1998 initiative effort foundered, but the legislature went ahead with Growing Smarter, including a ballot referendum that set aside $20 million annually for 11 years to purchase state trust land for preservation. The measure passed with 54 percent of the vote two years ago.

The legislation also created the 15-member Growing Smarter Commission to study the impact of growth. Along with Propst, the commission included eight state lawmakers, Land Department Commissioner Michael Anable, rancher Mandy Metzger and heavyweight land-use attorney Steve Betts. A lobbyist at the state legislature for Don Diamond (among others), Betts was a key player in the drafting of the original Growing Smarter legislation.

Propst says the Growing Smarter Commission's planning process wasn't perfect, but it did lead to three key recommendations:

· Reform Arizona's current state trust land policies, which insist state trust land must be put to "highest and best use." That provision, written into the Arizona constitution at statehood, was designed to help fund schools through sale and lease of the trust lands. The state has been slow to sell those lands, with about 10 million acres still held in trust. Funds from the sale and lease of land are placed in an endowment, with the interest payments supporting education. Those dividends provide about 2 percent of the state's annual education budget.

The highest and best use provision has always been interpreted as meaning state trust land must be sold off for the highest amount of money. That has traditionally meant selling the land for high-density housing and commercial development. The Growing Smarter Commission recommended finding a way to recognize the ecological value of preservation of some state trust land.

· 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, none of those provisions made it through the legislature. Instead, Growing Smarter Plus made some minor reforms that cities and towns can choose to use if they want to undergo a planning effort.

Another element was Prop 100, which purports to help conservation by setting aside up to 3 percent of state trust land for conservation. It also allows swaps of state land and provides free land for public schools.

The 3 percent cap means that only 279,000 acres of state trust 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.

Propst is particularly critical of the first 70,000 acres proposed for conservation in Prop 100. "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."

Propst is equally critical of Rogers Lake near Flagstaff, which is underwater several months of the year. "The lake itself was included in the 70,000 acres, but the shoreline was not," he points out. "It's one of the things that completely undevelopable. That just goes to the whole point that there was no effort to produce conservation."

Arlan Colton, a former planner with the State Land Department who worked on a number of projects designed to preserve state land, played a major role in selecting the initial parcels, under a set of criteria that was changing as the law moved through the legislative process. He concedes that Propst has a point when he complains about the conservation value of the proposed preserve. "In the sense that the conservation preserve and the initial set of lands doesn't allow for complete ecosystems, he's right, because it wasn't set up to do that," Colton says. "It was set up to pick out the best of the best pieces, with the idea that through additional potential set-asides ... you could fill in gaps in those areas. I don't believe you can look at all this as one step."

"That's encouraging," Propst responds. "I think the whole thing is bogus. If this is a bait-and-switch operation, this is the stinkiest bait I've ever seen."

BY SENDING PROP 100 to the ballot, lawmakers had an underlying agenda: They hoped 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.

If Prop 100 loses in November, Propst hopes conservation groups can put an initiative on the ballot in 2002 to amend the constitution to bring stricter reform to the State Land Department.

"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.

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