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.

Chapter 26 defined the mountain preserves, then asked the Parks Board to establish its uses consistent with a number of preservationist criteria. It also let in those city departments that needed to do work there. It forbade sale of the preserves and established those situations in which land could be traded for the betterment of the preserves.

Penny Howe has been a Parks Board member since 1985. She also chaired the committee that wrote Chapter 26. And as she recalls, on the eve of bringing the finished language to City Council, her committee was approached by then-mayor Terry Goddard, who had a request.

Resort developer Robert Gosnell had been negotiating a golf course on South Mountain next to his Pointe Resort, and the deal had to go through. For expediency, the committee caved in and the charter amendment went through the council with a grandfather clause allowing Gosnell's trade.

The ensuing ruckus--the voters had proscribed development and it was going through anyway--went all the way to the state supreme court. Gosnell got to keep his golf course, but the voters pushed through a referendum, led by Ruth Hamilton, that cut off all trades in the preserves.

Goddard took a political pounding.
"The main item was very profound outrage that any part of the preserves would be used for recreation," he says now.

But the improved charter soothed the outrage. Donna Larson, who was assistant to Parks Director Jim Colley at the time says, "It was almost like a peace treaty. The impression of this document was, 'We don't have to worry any more.'"

They worried anyway. In 1988, as a master plan was being written for South Mountain, the City Council, again under Goddard, passed a resolution affirming that South Mountain was preserves.

"It's unequivocal," Goddard says. "There should be no question about it."
Actually, there were minor questions. In the late 1990s, a city councilman discovered that his backyard jutted into the preserves and so the Parks Department put aside other matters to get surveyors out to compare the preserves' boundaries on the city quarter section maps with the preserves' boundaries on the ground.

The survey cost $950,000 to complete and identified about 250 encroachments.
In a 1992 letter to Jane Beach, who was then president of the PMPC, Parks Director Jim Colley referred to that project as "the official survey of all mountains preserve lands." Then he went on to write, "Project is complete with final maps and boundary points identified."

About 50 lawsuits were filed. Homeowners were forced to move walls and shrubbery or buy the property from the city. Then,in 1995, when all the lines were settled, the changes were put before the voters and approved.

In 1995, in order to compile an oral history of the mountain preserves to keep in a new parks education center at South Mountain, Jim Colley interviewed two of his former lieutenants, Del Seppanen and Bernie Freese, on folding chairs at North Mountain Park. Freese and Seppanen are both retired, but they had both been key to the building and maintenance of the preserves, and the point of the video was to capture their recollections for future generations.

Late in the interview, Jim Colley, who is a big and good-natured Southern gentleman, waxes philosophic. "My concern is that as the population continues to grow and people keep coming here, that they see these mountains and not understand."

Freese and Seppanen seem not to follow him.
"What I'm saying," Colley continues, "is that as the population continues to grow, even though we have a charter amendment that says people have to vote on what happens, the population may be willing to make that decision to change it."

Clearly, the possibility bothered Colley, who has long run an efficient and creative Parks Department.

But the changes he feared didn't seem to come from the new people. Within three years his official comments regarding the preserves' boundaries would reflect a new official city policy whose origins are unclear.

There had been no question within the minds of Colley's employees while they were building the preserves.

"When the more or less final establishment was done," says retired Parks supervisor Seppanen, "that line was put on quarter section maps, and every one of those parcels inside those lines has a number. And regardless of what monies those lands were bought with, they were based on those numbers."

Gus Tomich worked for the City Real Estate Department and claims he bought as much as $75 million in property, much of it for the mountain preserves, between 1973 and 1986.

"The mountains preserve boundary was defined when I was buying," he says. "I bought mountain property for 14 years and I worked off the quarter section map as my real authority on the boundary written there. I had to buy to the boundary line."

There were often questions of where the money to buy those lands would come from. The city owned some already, annexed some, patented claims, and bought what it could. And indeed Tomich's ledgers from that time reflect the various sources of the monies used to buy preserves land. One document labeled "Source of Funds Through 12-31-83/ Phoenix Mountains & South Mountain Preserves Program" shows park bonds, storm sewer bonds, and federal grants in addition to those bonds issued solely for open space or preserves land.

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