A primitive, 10,000-acre park in the growing south East Valley would become more inviting to people under a plan approved Monday to build trails, restrooms, a campground and other amenities.
However, the master plan for the San Tan Mountains Regional Park would cost about $12 million to carry out — and no money has been provided for it.
Despite the lack of funding, government officials and park supporters said the plan's approval by the five-member Maricopa County Board of Supervisors was a major turning point in the park's 18-year history.
“It's a big deal,” said Queen Creek resident Gordon Brown. “It’s the culmination of two years’ worth of work from a large group of diverse interests.”
The county has done little with the land since acquiring the rights to manage it from the federal government in 1986. Located south of Hunt Highway and north of the Gila River Indian Community, the park is a near-pristine desert wonderland with saguaro and cholla cactuses, hidden canyons, ancient petroglyphs and animals ranging from desert tortoises to mountain lions.
Yet as the Valley's population grew, the land fell prey to off-road vehicle abuse, illegal dumping and other problems. Officials banned off-road driving two years ago and began installing a perimeter fence. But without an official entrance or a single improved trail, few but the hardiest hikers, bikers and horseback riders can explore the park.
In 2002, officials in Queen Creek, Gilbert, Mesa and Chandler agreed to pay nearly $300,000 to help the county develop the master plan. During a series of community meetings, leaders and area residents helped decide how much development was needed and what to build.
The final master plan did not please everyone. For instance, Gilbert officials did not get a competitive mountain biking track. But “it's as close as we're ever going to get to a consensus,” Brown said.
Some park supporters said they hoped Monday's approval meant no part of the park would ever be sold. County officials considered selling 20 percent of the park in 2000, and this year suggested selling a portion to the Gila River Indian Community.
“Until funding is identified and contractors have been hired and ground has been turned, everything is always subject to change,” Gilbert Mayor Steve Berman said.
Last year, the county supervisors set aside $700,000 to build a formal park entrance with a visitor's center and restrooms. That project is set to be completed next year. Officials offered several ideas on Monday to provide money for the master plan, including a potential bond election in 2006.
Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Andy Kunasek, R-District 3, of Phoenix said he would rather use the county's General Fund.
“I could see finding some funds,” Kunasek said. “I'm hopeful we'll put something together for next year.”
However it is done, Queen Creek Mayor Wendy Feldman-Kerr said she hopes East Valley municipalities will not be asked for more money.
“We pay our taxes to the county and expect the money will be used on a park in the south East Valley,” said Feldman-Kerr, an avid horseback rider who frequents the park.
For information, visit www.maricopa.gov/parks/santan.