Sorry, but state land process might not protect open space - Tucson Local Media: Editorials

Sorry, but state land process might not protect open space

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Posted: Wednesday, December 17, 2008 12:00 am

After reading both the news article related to Arroyo Grande published by Patrick McNamara on Dec. 10, and the editorial by Dave Perry, I believe it is appropriate to provide the county perspective on the issue of the Arroyo Grande General Plan.

First, we have every confidence in the Mayor and Council as well as staff of Oro Valley to do their absolute best in seeing that the promises made in the plan are achieved. Unfortunately, our past experience with the State Land Department indicates such may be very difficult.

Staff and the commissioner of the State Land Department are not really the problem. An archaic and senseless process to administer State Trust lands is to blame. Unfortunately, this process dates from statehood and has never been modernized or updated to meet the needs of a growing and urban Arizona.

The County, from the onset, recognized the need to provide substantial and significant regional land conservation, or open space, in the Arroyo Grande planning area. In particular, linking the Santa Catalina sky island to the Tortolita Mountain Range is biologically imperative. I am sure that this need was not a high priority or pressing issue for those who crafted either the State Constitution or Enabling Act in 1910, governing state land -- hence the current dilemma.

Contemporary land use planning in the last half century recognizes the benefit and value of natural lands, open spaces, and parks. Unfortunately, the Enabling Act does not.

State Land officials have often stated to us that they are the “new Land Department,” wanting to endorse contemporary planning principles to maximize not only value to their trustees, but also to ensure that this value, once translated into the local reality of development, benefits the individual community, in this case Oro Valley, as well as the larger community, such as Pima County.

It sounds good, and we believed it to a point. Our request to Oro Valley and the State Land Department was simply to state, on the record, what they have stated privately regarding the preservation of open space in the Arroyo Grande plan. They could not, as evidenced by the comments of the deputy state land commissioner to Patrick McNamara, where she stated “there’s no provision for us to sell at conservation value.” I doubt this position will or even can change without bringing the laws, regulations and procedures under which the State Land Department does business into the 21st Century.

So the question becomes, what mechanism will be used to ensure that the open space shown in the plan will actually occur? For two years the county has been requesting that the same mechanism be used as is used with large developments proposed on private land -- some land is designated for development and some land is designated as open space. Because open space is not developable, the land would be valued at conservation value, not at development value. This solution is simple — the state gets valuable development property through zoning given by Oro Valley and the public gets low cost open space at conservation value.

Unfortunately, while the state eagerly accepted the increase in value for the developed land, they could not commit to sell the open space at conservation value. Hence the present problem and our lack of confidence in ever obtaining the Arroyo Grande open space.

Regarding the value of $1,000 per acre, this was simply a concession to the state to help them with their concern over receiving value for the open space. In all private development proposals, open space is simply granted free or without cost.

We are very concerned that proceeding with the Arroyo Grande plan under the present circumstances and constraints of the State Land Department will not yield any open space.

I apologize if any of my remarks may have been interpreted to cast blame on any entity or individual. They were not intended to do so. In the present circumstance it is nobody’s fault, but really everybody’s fault. It will be a tragedy if we all went through the difficult and trying process to develop consensus on Arroyo Grande and the end result is our complete failure to produce the open space the public was promised.

Chuck Huckelberry is the Pima County administrator.

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