Land trust reforms unveiled - East Valley Tribune: News

Land trust reforms unveiled

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Posted: Thursday, January 1, 2004 3:23 am | Updated: 5:00 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

Thousands of acres in Scottsdale, Cave Creek and the Superstition Mountains area are targeted for openspace preservation in a proposal for state land trust reform.

Leaders of the reform coalition on Tuesday unveiled maps identifying more than 12,000 acres of state lands in Maricopa County that would be closed to development under the plan.

Another 34,000 acres in the county would be made eligible for open-space acquisition by municipalities or conservation organizations willing and able to purchase them at market value.

Those areas include much of the land Scottsdale wants for expansion of its McDowell Sonoran Preserve and large swaths near the Superstitions that the Superstition Area Land Trust is working to save.

The plan also targets more than 1,000 acres of open land near or adjoining the Spur Cross Conservation Area in Cave Creek and a smaller tract next to the county’s San Tan Mountains Regional Park near Queen Creek.

"We are all encouraged by what’s on the maps. . . . If this (proposal) holds up, it gives us an opportunity to make major inroads toward our objectives,’’ said Charles Backus, president of the Superstition Area Land Trust and chairman of the East Valley Partnership.

Backus is among several community leaders trying to muster support for a local planning effort that would target some state lands and other properties for preservation stretching from the Superstitions to the San Tan area.

The reform plan doesn’t ease challenges for cities and conservation groups in finding financial resources to purchase open space, "but it would make it a lot easier to work with the state to protect land,’’ said Michael Rigney, director of the Desert Foothills Land Trust, which has led preservation efforts in the Cave Creek area.

Reform "is just one more tool’’ that could help Scottsdale reach its goal of a 36,000-acre desert open space system, said Carla (her legal name), director of the McDowell Sonoran Land Trust. The nonprofit group aids the city’s preservation program.

Under that plan, about 5,000 acres of state land in Scottsdale would become protected open space; another 9,000 would be designated eligible for purchase for conservation.

"It won’t take care of all our (proposed preserve) land, but it would be a big step. . . . The community is still going to have to step up with new funding,’’ Carla said.

Reform coalition leaders stressed the preservation plan is only part of a much larger reform package not yet in its final version.

"Nothing is set in stone,’’ said Ed Fox, head of environmental affairs for Arizona Public Service Co., the state’s largest utility company.

For the past three years, Fox has presided over a coalition of development and business interests, environmental and ranching groups and public education officials.

"We don’t yet have unanimity’’ on all reform issues, Fox said, but the group hopes to issue a final draft by mid-January and then ask Gov. Janet Napolitano to call a special session of the state Legislature to consider the plan. The coalition wants to see it put to a public vote by November.

Land trust reform will involve major legislative changes, said state Land Commissioner Mark Winkleman.

To start with, it will require amendments to the state constitution and the federal Enabling Act. The act gave the land to Arizona, with the mandate that it be used to provide the highest value to the trust’s beneficiaries, primarily public schools.

That has meant selling big chunks of trust land to developers or leasing it to ranching and agricultural interests.

Preservationists have argued that it no longer serves the state’s best interest to keep all 9.2 million acres of trust land open to development when many cities are trying to control urban growth.

The reform package would put about 7 percent of trust lands statewide— almost 675,000 acres —in place for preservation. About 3 percent would be protected by the state, and 4 percent would be made eligible for municipalities or private groups to purchase as open space.

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