Maricopa County negotiated the sale of a large chunk of San Tan Mountain Regional Park behind closed doors — and behind the backs of municipal leaders who believed they were partners in the park’s planning, East Valley officials complained Monday.
Officials from Gilbert, Chandler and Queen Creek criticized the proposed sale of about 1,200 acres in the park’s "south finger" to the Gila River Indian Community, with some calling it an insult to the public process that earmarked the area for recreational uses such as mountain biking.
"Why don’t you just slap us in the face?" Gilbert Town Councilman Steve Urie asked, adding that area municipalities spent $145,000 and held several public meetings to come up with the park’s new master plan. "If they’re just going to slam-dunk it, then why did we spend the money?"
The agreement would require the Gila River community to pay $8 million — about $6,700 per acre — and keep the land undeveloped via a "conservation easement." Tribal officials said the land would create a desired buffer between development and a wild horse preserve to the south.
The Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Commission voted unanimously at Monday’s meeting to forward a positive recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, which would have to vote for approval before the property could be sold.
Pinal County Supervisor Sandie Smith, D-District 2 of Gold Canyon, thanked Maricopa officials for coming up with a creative solution to preserving the land and funding park improvements. Several residents had complained about the former plan, which would have put a competitive mountain bike track in the south finger.
Still, Smith and others questioned how the conservation agreement with the tribe would be enforced, and whether area residents would be able to use the land for recreation.
Gila River community economic development planner Larry Stephenson said the tribe does not plan to let outsiders enter the area. It would be fenced and treated like any other private property, he said.
However, Maricopa County officials said they hoped the Gila River community would continue discussions on the issue of limited public use.
"I cannot say that it’s not negotiable," Stephenson said, "but our expectation would be that it would be private."
The 10,000-acre desert park is in Pinal County but managed by Maricopa County. Mesa, Queen Creek, Chandler, Gilbert and Maricopa County jointly spent $295,000 to update the 1990 master plan, holding open-house meetings in every community.
The update, which still needs to be approved by Maricopa County, is undergoing environmental review by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Queen Creek public works coordinator Joe LaFortune said selling the south finger would relinquish valuable open space, and that another open house should be held so the public can weigh in on the matter.
"We felt that we were all partners in this, so it has come as a surprise," LaFortune said of the deal.
However, Maricopa County community services director William Scalzo said it’s not unusual to keep land deals secret until negotiations are complete.
"When you deal with real estate, you can’t have open meetings," he said, adding that premature sale announcements could lead to "speculation."
Rumors circulated earlier this year about negotiations with the Gila River community. Scalzo told the Tribune in January that the talks were about fencing the park’s southern border, not about selling the land.
Now that the word is out, Maricopa County Supervisor Fulton Brock, R-District 1 of Chandler, said he hoped the public would provide input before the supervisors vote on the matter.
"We want this to be as open, as responsive as possible," Brock said.