Why Growing Smarter Will Grow Old Fast

The so-called Growing Smarter measure would prevent the state from enacting strict growth controls. At the same time, however, it would free up $220 million for land preservation.

"When we first started the acquisition of the mountain preserve, we didn't talk about money. We knew that's what we wanted, and that's what we went for," she says.

Hamilton is convinced that more money will come once the legislature recognizes how important open space is to the public and how willing it is to pay to keep it.

"I think it is the wish of the people. That's what they want," she says. "They want that open space."

Hamilton has contributed $10 to the pro-Proposition 303 campaign.

People might want open space, says David Baron, but not at any cost.
"It is very hard to get our public officials to do anything without strings attached, which Proposition 303 vividly shows," says Baron, architect of the ill-fated Citizens Growth Management Initiative. Baron's long-running battles with the legislature over air- and water-quality issues are legendary.

"They just can't provide money to buy land," Baron says mockingly of Proposition 303's proposed $20 million annual appropriation. "They also have to include language that prohibits strong growth-management plans. It's just outrageous!"

Baron is correct when he says there's plenty for developers to love about Proposition 303.

The measure was written primarily by Phoenix real estate attorney Steve Betts, and was designed to counter every point in the CGMI. If approved by voters, Proposition 303 will prohibit the state from requiring:

* Cities and counties to establish growth boundaries to protect outlying areas from development.

* Air- and water-quality controls as part of municipal growth-management plans.

* Street and highway environmental-impact studies.
* Voter approval of all growth-management plans and amendments.
Jack Frazier, president of the McDowell Park Association, says the ugly side of Proposition 303 undermines whatever good might have come out of the Growing Smarter Act, which itself is rife with problems.

"Proposition 303 means business as usual as far as growth controls are concerned," Frazier says. "In fact, it's even worse. It really puts a lot of brakes on controls."

Proposition 303 supporters say the measure doesn't do anything the legislature wouldn't have adopted anyway. Further, it doesn't prevent cities and counties from implementing strict growth-management plans; it just doesn't require them to.

"There is nothing in Growing Smarter or the initiative that prevents them from addressing growth-management problems," says gubernatorial aide Maria Bier.

Baron dismisses as nonsense the contention that cities and counties are capable of enacting tougher growth-control measures.

"Over the years, the developers have gotten the laws written in such a way to severely limit what local governments can do," Baron says.

When cities try to stem growth, they invariably are sued and end up losing in court. That's what happened in Sedona when citizens tried to pass a ballot measure to limit building permits. Developers sued the city, claiming it had no authority to limit growth. The growth-control effort eventually failed.

Expecting municipalities to solve regional growth issues on a piecemeal basis is unrealistic, Baron says.

"You can't have strong growth management unless everybody has to do it," he says.

Environmentalists argue that Proposition 303 diverts attention from its attack on growth-management tools by dangling $20 million a year in front of voters. The money, opponents say, is a pittance, and there is no guarantee it will be available past the first year.

"We are all very concerned that money is just going to be frittered away or it just won't be there," says the Sierra Club's Bahr.

The $20 million annual appropriation--while an unprecedented outlay by Arizona Legislature standards--pales in comparison to efforts by other states to preserve open space. Florida, for example, spends $300 million per year on land-conservation efforts.

Even if the legislature fully funds Proposition 303 over the next 11 years, and municipalities and private sources provide matching funds, the $440 million won't go too far in acquiring lands in expensive urban areas. The money would purchase only 11,000 acres at an average price of $40,000 an acre--which is well below current urban-land prices. Even if 11,000 acres were purchased, it would barely put a dent in the development machine that is absorbing more than 9,000 acres per year in the Valley.

And not all the money will be spent on acquiring state trust land.
Environmentalists point to language in the Growing Smarter Act that allows up to 10 percent of the $20 million state appropriation each year to go to farmers, ranchers and developers who take undefined action to preserve open space.

The law also allows deep-pocket developers to set up nonprofit land trusts to obtain matching state funds to purchase state land outright or to acquire the development rights to the land. Under this scenario, environmentalists argue that developers can enhance the value of their projects by acquiring adjacent state land and setting up essentially private conservation preserves--subsidized with public funds.

The biggest concern, however, is that the legislature will fail to appropriate the $20 million after the first year or years.

"What happens when there is a budget shortfall?" Baron asks. "Does anyone really believe they are going to keep their hands off this money? There is no assurance whatsoever that we are going to see this money after next year.

"So what are we buying? We are buying severe restrictions on meaningful growth management in exchange for money that could disappear tomorrow or disappear within a year."

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