A publicly funded revamping of the San Tan Mountains Regional Park master plan has opened old wounds and created new debate over issues such as a possible road closure, park access, use fees and what to do with two "fingers" of land.
On Thursday, Phoenix consulting firm Environmental Planning Group will present three options for the park's updated master plan, ranging from relatively minor landscape changes to adding a significant number of recreational facilities and other amenities. Those on hand at the open house will have a chance to give their opinions about which direction park planners should take.
To develop the three proposals, the consulting firm has held two public meetings and met privately with interest groups such as the park's Stakeholders Advisory Group. The final plan will be approved in November by an eight-member delegation representing Maricopa and Pinal counties and four East Valley municipalities.
Advisory group member Gordon Brown said Maricopa County, Queen Creek, Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert are spending about $240,000 to update the master plan. However, an atmosphere of distrust — created in part by the fact that Maricopa County manages the park despite its Pinal County location — has some questioning whether the process is a waste of taxpayers' money.
Advisory group president Alden Rosbrook said he is disappointed that Maricopa County Parks and Recreation officials have proceeded to fence in the park and implement a daily use fee before the master plan update has been completed.
"Why are we an advisory group if they're just going to tell us what they're going to do?" said Rosbrook, a Pinal County resident.
Brown said two old issues have resurfaced during the process that many park enthusiasts had believed were dead: Possible closing of Brenner Pass Road and sale of land in areas known as the park's north and south fingers.
Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley, R-District 2 of Mesa, said the fingers — two long stretches of land extending east — are unusual because they were acquired from the Bureau of Land Management after it foreclosed on a private property owner. A debate has been raging for years as to whether they belong to the park or should be sold for a profit.
"There's a difference of opinion on the board," Stapley said. "A couple of them would like to sell right now."
Despite the consulting firm's suggestion that a portion of the south finger be sold to generate park revenue, Stapley said the county is "not going to sell off the fingers at this time."
Stapley also dismissed another master plan suggestion, closing Brenner Pass Road in the north finger. Emergency services provider Rural/Metro Corp. has argued that the busy road — which some say doesn't belong in the park — is vital to reaching county residents in an emergency.
"It's not Maricopa County's intention to close Brenner Pass (Road)," Stapley said. "We're not going to strand a bunch of private property owners out there."
Still, San Tan Mountain Pride vice president Bill Heath said he believes it will be necessary to close the road in a few years for the sake of the park, and that it was never meant to be used as a major thoroughfare.
Stapley said he was concerned from the beginning that the master plan update process would be "dysfunctional." However, Brown said he hopes the involved parties won't let personal differences overshadow the goal of creating a better park.
"At some point you have to ask, what's the park for?" Brown said. "Is it for people? If so, why injure people for the good of the park?"
San Tan plan
Consulting firm Environmental Planning Group is offering several alternatives for improving San Tan Mountains
A Goldmine Mountains: This mountainous area with sharp valleys and a variety of wildflowers also is home to a historic grave site. Proposed changes include closing illegal access points and protecting historic and archaeological sites.
B Central Valley: Park planners want this U-shaped valley to be the main gateway into the park. Plans include creating a main park entrance, visitor center, picnic areas and an equestrian staging area.
C Broken Lands: The area features isolated Sonoran desert foothills that offer a clear view of the park. Plans include rebuilding trails and protecting sensitive vegetation and habitat.
D Northern Foothills: This piece of county-managed land comprises half of the park 's "north finger." It is the site of a planned Johnson Ranch water tank and could be used for youth camping activities.
E Brenner Pass: This controversial piece of the north finger contains a road that some park enthusiasts would like to close. However, Rural/Metro and Maricopa County officials say it is needed to provide emergency services.
F The Gap: These hilly uplands contain high concentrations of saguaro cactus and great views of wildlife. Plans include featuring archaeological sites and rehabilitating roads and trails.
G Malpais Hills: This mountain area contains dramatic landforms such as Rock Peak and interior valleys. Suggestions include protecting the high concentration of historic and archaeological sites, and rebuilding roads and trails.
H Southern Foothills: These foothills make up the highest portion of the countymanaged "south finger." Plans include rehabilitating trails and mine sites, building a competitive track and protecting wildlife.
I Southern Flatlands: This low area borders the Gila River Indian Community, which could participate in area educational programs. Other plans include creating additional trails, a competitive track and group camping areas.
J Mineral Butte Extension:
This long, thin section of the south finger contains the least pristine land. Some would like to rehabilitate this former gravel pit site, and others have suggested selling it to generate park revenue. SOURCE: Environmental Planning Group