A new revenue source far from assures smooth sailing for Scottsdale's land preservation quest, and instead sounds a warning, say city officials and leading McDowell Sonoran Preserve supporters.
The city sales tax hike adding 15 cents for every $100 in purchases to fund expansion of the desert open-space system was approved Tuesday by a much lower margin than six previous preserve ballot proposals.
Advocates said it means they'll be working harder to guard against support slipping for acquiring about 20,000 acres to reach the goal of a 36,400-acre preserve.
They're fretting about fallout from a fractious campaign in which some tax opponents said pursuit of more preserve land will take the city's focus and finances away from needed revitalization of south Scottsdale to instead benefit north Scottsdale property owners whose land is near the preserve.
Now, the preserve backers’ mission will shift to mending the north/south schism to prevent the issue from further eroding preserve support in the future, when revenue beyond those to be generated by the new 30-year tax may be needed to complete the project.
“The education side of what we do will definitely get stepped up,’’ said Christine Kovach, chairwoman of the McDowell Sonoran Land Trust's board of directors. The nonprofit group aids the city's preservation project.
“We have to show the people who voted against the tax how the preserve benefits the entire city,’’ said Carla (her legal name) the land trust's director and a leader of Protect and Preserve, the group that spearheaded the campaign for the tax.
“I don't think people are souring on the preserve (effort), but opponents didn't think other options and issues were looked at,’’ Kovach said.
The city's McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission did study alternatives to a sales tax. But that was only one fact that wasn't communicated clearly enough in the campaign, Kovach said.
Tax opponents, including mayoral candidate David Ortega and City Council candidates Henry Becker and William Crawford — each of whom lost election bids — took the city to task for not stating a final price for preserve expansion.
They also suggested the city was passing up an opportunity to establish special tax assessment districts that would have shifted the tax burden to property owners near the preserve.
The assessment district idea is fraught with legal questions and practical difficulties in applying it fairly, and there are viable reasons why a firm price can't be put on the land targeted for the preserve, Carla said.
“Even though the tax passed, we have to do a better job of getting that information out,’’ she said.
Public support also can be bolstered by quickly putting the additional tax revenue to use by developing public preserve access facilities and the planned trail system, said preserve commission chairman Art DeCabooter.
With the tax in place, public access will be the City Council's top priority for the preserve project, said Councilman Wayne Ecton.
“More access is critical. I think when more people get out and see the preserve it will make them appreciate what an asset it is,’’ he said.
Ecton echoed other City Council members in saying there will be no political will to ever raise sales taxes again for the preserve. Property taxes and private donations could be the best future options, “and that's the time our commitment will really be tested,’’ he said. Tax opponent Paula Pennypacker, who questioned whether Scottsdale has made enough progress with the almost $300 million spent so far on the preserve, said she and others will continue to press the city to justify preserve expenditures.