As if Arizona Land Trust reform weren't complicated enough, the Tribune's Mark Flatten has now uncovered a related mess dating back decades that could end up costing state and local taxpayers billions of dollars. It seems the only way out is for last trust reforms to include some sort of fix.
State land trust reform is an important issue that every Arizona voter should have some knowledge of, because in all likelihood it will appear on the state ballot sometime in the near future. Yet we know this is a mind-numbingly complicated issue, so we'll try to keep it simple.
Vast expanses of Arizona land, including thousands of acres in the path of East Valley growth toward the east and south, are owned by the state. By act of Congress dating from statehood, state holdings must be sold or leased, with most of the proceeds going to benefit public schools.
The land-trust reform movement wants the law changed to allow some of those holdings to be preserved as open space, and for the state to have some control over how the rest is developed. Reform proposals have pitted preservationists, public educators, developers and ranchers against each other.
And now comes Flatten's revelation, published last Sunday, that a growing legal battle over hundreds of easements that have been granted to state, county and local governments over the years could ultimately result in those entities having to pay billions of dollars to the state land trust for those easements. Many of the easements are for roads, highways and flood control structures.
A large flood-control easement in northern Pinal County, which includes a series of earthen dams that protect much of the East Valley from storm runoff from the Superstition Mountains, has become a major bone of contention between a developer, the state, the Flood Control District of Maricopa County and a public-interest law firm.
It's become both a legal battle and a political fight. Suffice it to say that it's doubtful any reasonable resolution to this mess will come out of the court battle. And it's costing millions while stalling the prospective orderly development of the far south East Valley — and the resulting revenue flow to public schools from the sale of trust lands.
Arizona's state and federal lawmakers need to get involved. Resolving the easement issue must be part of state land trust reform — or at least accompany it. While it appears land trust administrators overstepped their authority in granting the easements without compensation, it's unreasonable to expect local, county and state taxpayers to cough up billions to correct an error that goes back nearly a century.
A balanced solution that is in the public's interest must be found, and the best place to do that is at the negotiating table — not in a courtroom. Then it needs to be codified in the state constitution and the federal land trust enabling act.