Backers of a state trust land reform initiative triumphantly turned in 301,000 signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office on Friday, which the group says is the most ever collected for a proposed constitutional amendment.
The petition drive’s success proves Arizonans are tired of waiting for government to protect sensitive areas from urban sprawl, said members of Conserving Arizona’s Future, a group formed to promote the initiative of the same name.
“I think it says people are ready to make a decision on this,” said David Howell, board chairman of The Nature Conservancy in Arizona, adding that trust land reform has been debated for more than a decade.
The measure will appear on the statewide ballot in November if at least 184,000 voter signatures can be validated. A win at the polls would result in operational enhancements to the Arizona Land Department, which manages Arizona’s 9.3 million acres of trust land, and it would set aside up to 694,000 acres of trust land for preservation.
About 300,000 acres automatically would be preserved in perpetuity, and the remainder would be composed of “provisional” reserves that must be bought at market value by conservation groups.
Even if the initiative passes, no land would be preserved unless Congress passes an amendment to Arizona’s enabling legislation that established the land trust as a source of revenue for public schools.
Opponents of Conserving Arizona’s Future fall into two distinct and opposite groups. One side, which includes homebuilders and ranchers, says it opposes the preservation of trust land because it was granted to Arizona by the federal government for one purpose: To pay for public education with sale proceeds.
“It’s the largest land grab by special interest groups in the history of the state,” Home Builders Association of Central Arizona lobbyist Spencer Kamps said about the initiative.
On the other side is the Sierra Club, whose members say Conserving Arizona’s Future offers only limited preservation in exchange for boosting the Land Department’s resources, planning capabilities and authority to become a co-investor in land deals.
“Our interpretation is that it’s going to encourage more development of state trust land,” said Sierra Club conservation chairman Don Steuter. “That’s the trade-off.”
State legislators have engineered a competing referendum measure, HCR2045, which allows for up to 400,000 acres of open space but favors preservation in rural areas and requires legislative approval of each proposed preservation action.
The Home Builders Association and the Arizona Cattle Growers Association are backing HCR2045, but Conserving Arizona’s Future supporters say the referendum is nothing more than a spoiler to confuse voters into defeating the more potent initiative.
“They did it specifically to sink this one,” said Rosemary Shearer, chairwoman of the Superstition Area Land Trust.
Shearer agrees with the Sierra Club that the initiative doesn’t preserve enough land, but she said Conserving Arizona’s Future will at least provide some protection in areas where development is quickly overtaking desert areas.
“The longer we wait, the more land vanishes,” she said.
Howell said the initiative has broad support among conservation, business and education leaders because it offers preservation while increasing the potential value of developable trust land.
“It balances a lot of disparate interests,” he said.
Conserving Arizona’s Future would create a citizen advisory board to give the Land Department guidance and input. Initiative supporters say the result would be better decision making that maximizes land values and discourages leapfrog development.
“I think it’s time to modernize this system,” Howell said.