County pays $75 million to conserve land
Randy Metcalf/The Explorer, Pima County bought lands near this underpass not far from Interstate 10 and Avra Valley Road. The county considers it a crucial part of a planned wildlife crossing.

After nearly four years, Pima County has spent almost half the $164 million voters approved in 2004 to buy environmentally sensitive land, including some tracts in the Northwest.

Passage of the Conservation Acquisition Program opened the door for the county to purchase prime desert habitat, much of it in eastern Pima County.

The county’s Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan identifies 524,000 acres, many of which the county has sought to buy.

The county recently cut a deal to buy 50 acres near Avra Valley Road and Interstate 10.

The sale adds another section to the patchwork of properties the county aims to link into a wildlife corridor between the Tortolita and Tucson mountains.

The agreement gives the county the land while the property owned by Tom Parsons was re-zoned for a shopping center.

As part of the deal, the county will get a 2 percent cut of the development’s retail sales over the next 20 years, according to Nicole Fyffe from the Pima County Administrator’s Office.

The agreement adds to a May 2007 purchase of 15 acres in the same area from Continental Ranch developer Greg Wexler.

The county bought the land for $750,000. Wexler said he let the property go “at cost” because of its unique status.

“Because of its location, it’s not just another piece of land,” Wexler explained.

An old railway cuts through the land and runs beneath the interstate.

County officials and environmentalists consider the underpass as an important wildlife corridor.

Fyffe said officials set a long-term goal of extending the county’s holdings to both sides of the interstate to complete the envisioned corridor.

Scientists say such areas provide crucial conduits for animals to pass between the mountain ranges.

But roads and neighborhoods limit animal mobility.

The county has already spent some $75 million for about 26,000 acres, much of it spent to complete the wildlife corridor.

County officials said the coming year could see a run on the remaining bond dollars as sellers scramble to offload properties.

Fyffe said the slowdown in the real estate market has energized the county’s Conservation Acquisition Program.

“We’ve seen a lot of interest,” Fyffe said.

Citing legal restrictions, she declined to comment on specific properties that the county plans to buy, but some deals could close by mid-September.

Wexler, however, said that in his case, the real estate market slowdown didn’t prompt him to sell his land. In fact, he said that when he sold the land, the market was still hot.

In the crush of stories about foreclosures and would-be sellers struggling to find buyers, the undeveloped-land market remains largely ignored.

“It’s definitely true that because of the continued deteriorating marketplace people have expressed desire to sell to the county,” said land sales specialist Jim Marian of Chapman and Lindsay Commercial Real Estate.

Marian serves on the county’s Conservation Acquisition Commission, which oversees conservation land purchases.

He’s seen people ask less and less for land.

“The appraisals were higher three, four or five years ago,” Marian said.

Even with asking prices on the decline, Marian said people who can afford it likely would hold on to their properties.

Wexler agrees.

Landowners who have pursued the county likely paid too much for their properties to begin with, Wexler speculated.

Continental Ranch Development and other big firms have deep enough pockets to ride out the current downturn, Wexler said.

His company, for example, holds numerous properties, some of which the county would like to own.

But Wexler said he has no plans to sell.

The Pima County Assessor’s Office data shows that the decline in undeveloped land values has been minimal when compared to the region’s shrinking home prices.

“We’ve not seen any drop off,” said Jim Forbus, of the assessor’s office.

If anything, land values remain steady, despite several years of breakneck escalation, Forbus said.

Even so, the county has scored nearly 40 choice plots since the bond passed in 2004, including another recent purchase in the Northwest.

Fyyfe said price and availability have until now made it difficult for the county to buy land in the rapidly growing region.

That makes the latest purchase of 290 acres in Cochie Canyon an even bigger score for county officials.

The purchase extends Tortolita Mountain Park west toward Marana and puts another piece in place of the county’s wildlife corridor puzzle.

Arizona State Land Department holdings in the Northwest, however, remain obstacles in the county’s conservation quest.

The state trust holds more than 9 million acres statewide. Thousands of state-held property encircles the Tucson area.

Because of how state trust land is sold, the county has steered clear of it, even though much of it has been deemed prime for habitat conservation.

State trust land must be sold at auction. That means any plot the county has plans for would be open to bids from other speculators as well, many with pockets much deeper than the county’s.

A proposed statewide ballot measure would change that forever.

But recent rulings handed down by the Arizona Secretary of State and a Maricopa County judge put the future of that initiative in doubt.

If the proposal makes it before voters in November, its passage could change the way the state sells its holdings. It would allow local governments to buy land for conservation before it goes to auction.

Additionally, the initiative proposes permanent protection for more than 500,000 acres.

“For the Northwest, it would change things significantly,” Fyyfe said.

At least two-thirds of the 9,100-acre state holding north of Oro Valley, which town leaders have sought to annex, would forever remain free from development if the ballot measure passes.

If voters approve the change, the county no longer would have to focus on state land holdings. Instead, local officials would seek to buy privately held properties.

The coming months may prove crucial for the county’s conservation program.

The ballot measure’s passage could take thousands of Pima County acres off the table forever.

But its failure could pave the way for more sprawl as Southern Arizona’s population continues to swell.

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