Last month, the Marana Town Council decided not to pre-pay its 99-year state lease on the 2,400-acre Tortolita Preserve.

Prepayment would have cost $8.9 million, a hefty sum in these cash-strapped days. At the end of the lease, Marana would own … nothing. So, for now, it'll continue paying the state of Arizona an annual lease payment — $475,000 this year — to protect a precious slice of the Tortolita Fan.

Financially and otherwise, the decision not to pre-pay is a wise one. A large pull on reserves is expensive, in terms of debt service, and restrictive, in terms of the things the community could not do because its cash and borrowing abilities would be reduced.

Yes, the amount of money the town would spend on a lease is going to add up to millions of dollars … if the lease remains in place for 89 more years.

And that's the hook. Marana is banking on political change. It hopes to pursue "legislative options for Tortolita Fan preservation," according to adopted language. It hopes to "continue to pursue options to identify the community's desire for permanent protection" of the Preserve.

That desire is strong. The people of Marana and Southern Arizona want precious open space to be protected. Not all of it, but the very special places, the viewsheds and mountain ranges and desert expanses that draw our eyes every day.

Trouble is, state law doesn't allow governments to purchase open space in non-competitive environments. If Marana were to nominate the Tortolitas Preserve for purchase, it would have to compete on the open market with the private sector. And, while land speculation has slowed plenty in this economic climate, a competitive environment would push the price much higher than governments want to pay.

The same holds true for Arroyo Grande, the state parcel north of Oro Valley that is the subject of annexation agreements. Pima County would agree to purchase a piece of land to protect it as a wildlife corridor between the Tortolita and Santa Catalina mountain ranges. But, again, government would have to compete with private money to purchase that state ground.

It's time for the leaders of Arizona to do something bold, and change state law to allow government purchase of special open spaces at reduced rates.

This is the perfect time to do so, when land values have fallen, and when private money is not flowing as it did several years ago.

Arizona state government has a mountain — no pun intended — of problems to solve, particularly with its budget. Strong leadership at the highest level, and in the Legislature, right now, would seize the obvious, allow for less expensive open space protection, and assure the people of Arizona that we maintain an eye on the future while attempting to fix the worries of the present.


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