Last year, the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University published a report about the Sun Corridor, the Arizona megalopolis that stretches roughly from Prescott in the north to the Mexican border in the south. The corridor is anchored by Phoenix and, to a lesser extent, Tucson, and today holds about 5.2 million people, scattered over some 32,000 square miles. The report is alarming, and not just for its science-fiction-like prologue, which is written from the perspective of someone in 2035. It borders on the apocalyptic at times: "In 2022, the cover of Newsweek had proclaimed the Sun Corridor ‘the new dustbowl.' " It also predicts that the southern Arizona megapolitan population will burgeon to 10 million by 2040, requiring some 3.7 million housing units and 2.4 million acre-feet of water.
Perhaps most sobering is the tone of inevitability that pervades the report. "Supported by federal revenues, the national Sun Belt shift, and local investments," the report says, "leaders in Phoenix … assumed early on that growth would come and growth was good." If leaders tried to rein in that growth, they'd run up against a morass of land-use policies. The state's local governments "entitle" -- or give initial approval to -- developments far ahead of actual construction. Entitlements are almost impossible to reverse because of a measure, passed by state voters in 2006, that forces governments to pay property owners if land-use regulations hurt the value of their property. As a result, municipal planners have little authority over the private land that makes up 36 percent of the Sun Corridor. "Far from being a blank slate," says the Morrison report, "much of the Sun Corridor's form is already set in car-dependent, high-consumption patterns."
Another 27 percent of the megapolitan area is made up of big chunks of state land, including more than a half-million acres adjacent to Phoenix and Tucson, and another 1.2 million acres in Pinal County. In the past, most of this land -- totaling 9.3 million acres statewide -- was leased for grazing. More recently, though, developers -- who have a lot more cash at their disposal than ranchers do -- have been gobbling it up, particularly in urban areas.
During the last six years, as the housing boom peaked, the State Land Department disposed of about 20,000 acres -- out of some 475,000 acres on the Phoenix urban fringe -- generating $1.7 billion in sales. Developers have succeeded in imbuing the transactions with a rosy sheen: They are the "highest and best use" of the land, since the proceeds are deposited in a trust that benefits public schools. Critics, however, point out that the revenues generated by that trust make up only a tiny part of school funds, less than 2 percent. In fact, each new development -- and each new school that has to be built to serve it -- ends up costing the schools more money, offsetting the benefit.
Conservationists have tried more than once to reform the state land disposal process. They've attempted to change the rules to make it easier and less expensive for cities and counties to buy state land for preservation purposes, and they've asked the voters to permanently set aside hundreds of thousands of acres of state land. Thus far, though, homebuilding, real estate and ranching interests have succeeded in killing such efforts.
Meanwhile, State Land Commissioner Mark Winkleman wants to sell state land more quickly. By being so slow to dispose of its land, he says, the state inadvertently forces developers to leapfrog, or build out private parcels that are disconnected from transportation corridors and municipal services. The construction of thousands of homes in scattered subdivisions along the Hunt Highway corridor immediately east of Superstition Vistas, for example, created traffic nightmares that forced Pinal County to spend $88 million on a 17-mile parkway that has done little to alleviate congestion. It was a nightmare that could have been avoided, Winkleman says, if enough state land had been sold off first.