Deconstructing the Phoenix Mountain Preserve

More than a decade ago the creators of the mountain preserves nailed down their boundaries. Now a new generation of city staffers isn't sure they exist.

At its simplest level, reclassifying preserves land makes it easier to put swing sets and basketball courts in some parks. In a more sinister light, preservationists worry that it could facilitate deals with developers along the preserves periphery and golf courses in the flood plains. There are no such apparent deals in the works.

Theoretically, it also allows the city to sidestep the voters. If Mountain View Park were preserve land, the city could still deal with the school district if the voters approve it. But would they? The more expedient approach has already been demonstrated with Sumitomo Sitix and the downtown parking garage, where technicalities were invoked to avoid having to appeal to a stingy voting public.

Reclassifying land could also change how decisions are made regarding the telecommunications towers on top of South Mountain, in a period when the City of Phoenix is approving new phone services and otherwise accommodating the burgeoning digital and fiberoptic industries. If the park leading up to the towers is not deemed preserves, it's easier to run new cables up and over the mountain. More than one high-tech corporation is looking at exploring such issues with the city.

And that there's debate at all casts doubts on the sanctity of the proposed Desert Preserve that Mayor Skip Rimzsa and certain councilmen and preservationists would like to carve out of the city's northernmost reaches with help from Governor Jane Hull's Growing Smarter initiative. What protections will that land have? And how much will Phoenicians trust the city if the preserves they have already are being scrutinized?

The City Manager's office says don't worry; a solution is in place. The Parks Department will analyze every parcel of land to decide if it is preserves. They'll run that past an ad hoc citizens committee and make recommendations to the Parks Board, a group of political appointees, who will make recommendations to the City Council.

The City Council will decide what are preserves and what aren't, pass an ordinance declaring final boundaries; and then, after the politicians have redefined the boundaries, only a vote of the people can change them.

The battle lines are forming along generational lines. One generation of Phoenicians established the preserves and thought it had locked it up for good. And now the new generation of power brokers wants to unlock the safe, take out the family heirlooms, figure out which they want to keep and which they want to give away.

The older generation says that's not legal.
Ruth Hamilton, now 86, helped build the preserves and fought in the 1980s charter amendment wars; Governor Hull handpicked her to spearhead the Growing Smarter Initiative. And she's hopping mad over the city's plans to redefine the preserves.

"If they break the law, how the hell are we going to deal with the rest of the world?" she says.

Jim Colley, the Parks Department director, who has worked on the preserves almost as long, sides with his employer.

"This department is not going to do anything--because I've been here 20 years--to hurt the preserve."

The first 13,000 acres of South Mountain were acquired by the City of Phoenix from the federal government in a screaming deal during the Depression. Ever since, South Mountain has been touted as the largest municipal park in the world. In 1960, the city managed to annex Squaw Peak and North Mountain parks from Maricopa County, and horsemen's and citizens' groups were already worrying that development was making its move toward the desolate desert mountains north of the city limits.

In 1966, the City Council passed a resolution to buy and preserve "open space," but had no money to back up the desire. Four years later, the city hired a planner named Paul Van Cleve to recommend lands for purchase, and his 77-page report identified about 10,000 acres roughly corresponding to the current preserves. But the city still didn't have the money to actually buy any land and, instead, started cobbling together parcels in any way it could--acquiring federal mining claims and using bonds from other sources--and then tried to stack the deck against developers.

The council, in 1971, started imposing moratoriums on building in the areas designated for preserves. Ultimately, the moratorium produced a lawsuit by a young lawyer named Jay Dushoff, who represented landowners near Squaw Peak Park, and the city backed down.

But the ante was upped. After enthusiastic public hearings, the council passed a resolution in 1972 to approve the Van Cleve recommendations, then a year later passed $22.5 million in bonds to buy open space. A second bond issue failed in 1975, and the city scaled back the Van Cleve plan, dropping pretty parcels at Lincoln Avenue and 24th Street and north of Thunderbird Road to Lookout Mountain. The city passed three more bonds in 1979, 1984 and 1988 for another $40 million and continued buying.

However, the accumulating preserve land was not protected, and the council and the PMPC found themselves frequently fending off the advances of well-meaning developers or bureaucrats who wanted to build rodeo grounds or ramadas or golf courses or restaurants in the preserves. And so in 1985, a citizen committee wrote Chapter 26, the amendment to the city charter that was supposed to end such notions.

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