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.

Nor does the Parks Department have draconian plans for the preserve lands. "If as we go around, if the Water Department land can be officially incorporated into the preserves and still make an exception where the Water Department can still maintain those facilities, then I'm going to urge that it be put into the preserve boundaries," says Jim Colley.

But Chapter 26 already gives the City Council full access to the preserves to make sure that the water department can already maintain those facilities.

So what's the point? Discretion over city properties: The city could rebuild its water towers without even considering the Parks Board or the pesky oldtimers from the PMPC who seem to be hovering over its every move, staking out its meetings and taking notes. One supposes, though, if the water properties are cut loose, down the road, the city would be more free to explore private-public partnerships to manage them without Parks Board interference.

Theoretically, if lands along the edges were written out of the preserves, the city would be more free to deal with developers, who still loom large in the fears of the mountain preserves activists.

If the city decides to hold the 27-acre flood control land above Mountain View Park out of the preserves, what's to prevent them in the future from building much-needed facilities such as soccer fields there?

And what of the communications towers on top of South Mountain? Their pads sit on South Mountain Park land. The federal patents that gave the land to the city in the first place say that they have to stay there for "public convenience." Some of the 101 tower licensees provide governmental communications, the rest commercial TV, radio, pagers and a whole array of telecommunications that defy distinct boundaries.

Jim Burke ponders whether the land beneath the tower pads will be judged to be preserves in spite of its grandfathered use. "And if that happens, what does that mean?" he asks. "Does that mean we can never build another tower there or fix their road or bring up another generator?"

SRP and US West both have been allowed to replace their old-fashioned wires with fiberoptic cables.

According to Dale Larsen, assistant parks director, those cables are not used for commercial purposes; the phone lines merely provide phone service to the tower facilities and the SRP cable mostly connects that company to its service fleet. Furthermore, the Parks Department worries those cables could be used for other purposes, and indeed, enterprising telecommunications firms have already asked if they could piggyback on them.

Cox Communications has looked into running fiberoptics up to the towers and down into Ahwatukee to provide back-up transmission power for local broadcasters in the event of a power failure. So far, the Parks Department has not figured out if that would be legal to install under Chapter 26.

Good question. It would be easier to accomplish if South Mountain were deemed to be park and not preserves, though that is not likely to occur.

Last week, a Cox affiliate received a license from the City of Phoenix to incorporate telephone service into its array of telecommunications offerings. According to Cox vice president Ivan Johnson, that service does not require a cable over South Mountain, but he admits that the company could find other uses for that cable if it were there.

If such uses were deemed beneficial for the city, there is a mechanism to get them done: a vote. But if the towers were separated altogether from parks, as if they were property of some other department, that would make other decisions easier.

The Parks Board's official position since 1972 has been that it will remove the towers as technology permits. So far, technology is moving toward towers and not away. And the board and the city are already fighting over the paltry $850,000 a year that the towers bring in. The board wants it to be redirected to South Mountain rather than into the city's general fund, where it now goes.

Barring a successful lawsuit by the Phoenix Mountains Preservation Council or any other group, according to the city interpretation of Chapter 26, the Parks Board will make recommendations to the City Council, and then the City Council will decide the preserves' boundaries once and for all--with no voter input.

The Parks Board is very much aligned with the Arizona establishment and very politically connected. Eric Gorsegner is an SRP lobbyist; former Department of Environmental Quality director Ed Fox is a high-profile Republican and an employee of APS. Both are quick to excuse themselves when their employers' names come up. Chairperson Ramonia Thomas is a prominent Republican and an executive in the state Department of Economic Security.

Board member Kevin DeMenna's connections are a bit more disquieting. In the past he has lobbied on behalf of organizations seeking to put a toll road through or around South Mountain, and for Sumitomo Sitix, whose north Phoenix plant the City Council smoked past the voters in 1995. Although DeMenna claims he no longer represents many of those clients, they are still listed after his name in the database of the Arizona Secretary of State. Which may not suggest ill intentions.

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