Arizona voters say 'yes' to open space

Unusual alliances — and a little bit of pork — give land preservation an economic boost

  • Tucson open-space supporters, including Christine Conte, center, of The Nature Conservancy, cheer the passage of a bond measure

    Renee Bracamonte, Tucson Citizen

TUCSON, ARIZONA — On May 10, the National Rifle Association sent an alert to its 11,000 Tucson-area members, urging them to hit the polls to vote for a $174 million open-space bond package.

The NRA is not exactly the Sierra Club, but then this was not a typical open-space vote. With the help of a coalition of hunters, developers, realtors, environmentalists, government agencies, and the legendary University of Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson, backers of the bonds swept to victory on May 18. The vote — by a margin of 65 percent to 35 percent — raises money to preserve some 50,000 to 100,000 acres of Sonoran Desert.

The NRA got involved to help save some of the Southwest’s best hunting opportunities, says Todd Rathner, a Tucson resident who sits on the gun group’s national board. "We have some of the best quail hunting in the country. We’ve got terrific whitetail deer hunting and decent mule deer hunting. We have as much interest in preserving that as some of the traditional supporters of open space."

Around Tucson, the landslide vote was seen as a victory for the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, longtime County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry’s proposal to protect 55 vulnerable species on up to 440,000 acres (HCN, 5/7/01: County unveils pioneering protection plan).

But it wasn’t just saguaro and prickly pear cacti that drew voters to the polls. Pima County officials loaded six bond proposals onto the ballot, totaling $732 million, in order to finance a panoply of projects and draw the widest voter appeal. Projects included new courthouses costing $76 million, a $92 million regional public safety communications system, $30 million for child-care facilities, basketball courts and better streets in aging neighborhoods, more than $100 million for conventional parks and river parks, $150 million for sewers, and nearly $40 million for the county hospital. And to draw the hunting crowd, officials inserted onto the parks bond proposal $3.5 million to help pay for a new shooting range.

"Pork!" responded bond opponents, such as the Libertarian Party of Pima County, which posted 100 signs showing pink pigs to make its point. Other opponents attacked the massive bankroll of the bond supporters: Environmentalists had raised $400,000 to push the open-space bond, and a committee supporting all six proposals came up with another $114,000.

Other critics pointed out that the entire Sonoran Desert Plan could be compromised by promises made by Huckelberry. During the campaign, the county administrator told realtors and homebuilders that he saw no need for new development rules, if the bond passed. At the same time, he pushed through a proposal — contained in an ordinance to implement the bond package — that bars open-space purchases by condemnation.

On the same day as the Tucson vote, Scottsdale voters approved a 0.15 percent sales tax that would raise up to $500 million over 30 years to buy state land, and help buy up to 19,000 acres and complete a 36,400-acre preserve in the neighboring McDowell Mountains. In Flagstaff, voters approved two bonds totaling $13.1 million, allowing preservation of another 1,100 acres.

Both the Pima County and Scottsdale open-space purchases may be slowed, however, by a logjam in the sale of state land for conservation purposes. Typically, state land must be sold to the highest bidder to raise the maximum possible revenue for public schools. But until recently, the state allowed the sale of some environmentally sensitive land, with a proviso that it be used only for conservation. As a result, industry and developers were not interested in buying.

But in May, the Land Department put a hold on such sales after the People for the West, a business-backed group, complained that conservation-only sales were depriving the state of revenue by reducing the number of potential bidders. A new state-land reform package would amend the state Constitution to revive the conservation-only sales. The Legislature will decide on the package in a special session at the end of June.

Still, environmentalists took heart at their victory, which longtime activist Christina McVie of the group Desert Watch called the most cooperative community planning effort in Tucson in more than 50 years. Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson says the big victory reflected public awareness about the impacts of growth. "We hit the wall," she says. "We were losing our quality of place. A lot of people thought we were approaching the point where we couldn’t sustain our economic development efforts."

The author covers growth and development for the Arizona Daily Star.

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