"What's in the mountain preserve now?" asked Ruth Hamilton, the octogenarian stalwart of the Phoenix Mountains Preservation Council (PMPC), a citizens' watchdog group that guards the city's mountain preserves.
She was directing her question at Jim Burke, deputy director of the Phoenix Parks, Recreation and Library Department, who was just finishing up his presentation of the new and improved preserve boundaries at the Thursday, February 4, parks board meeting.
Burke danced around the issue, then looked for salvation to parks board chairman Ramonia Thomas, who put Hamilton in her place.
For a person on a public committee making public policy about public lands, Thomas doesn't seem to care much for public discussion.
Moments later, when PMPC attorney Jay Dushoff asked the board to allow his clients to analyze the materials on which the parks department based its boundary decisions, parks department officials agreed. But when he asked if his clients could then present their analysis publicly, Thomas balked, and suggested that Dushoff instead bring his concerns straight to parks department staffers. Seven PMPC members who had been slated to speak decided not to. As PMPC president Maxine Lakin told Thomas, "You don't want to hear."
Even fellow board member Eric Gorsegner was squelched when he asked Thomas if a proposed ordinance regarding the changed preserves could be read aloud.
"These people came for public input," he told her. Thomas refused to allow the public reading of the ordinance.
All of which increased the mystery of what is and isn't in the preserves, why the city suddenly decided there was any question in the first place, and why there's suddenly a hurry to get the new boundaries finalized.
The Phoenix Mountain Preserves had seemed inviolate until last fall, when in the midst of a battle over whether a school playground could extend into Mountain View Park in north Phoenix, the Parks Department announced that all the preserve boundaries were debatable. The news came as a shock to the venerable men and women of the Phoenix Mountains Preservation Council, who had spearheaded a referendum in 1985 to forever lock development out of the preserves by rewriting the city charter. A year later, after a golf course managed to slip into preserve land anyway, they went back and passed another referendum just to make double damn sure.
Suddenly, 13 years later, the parks department and the city attorney's office were saying that the charter amendment was vague, possibly unconstitutional, and that it demanded they recommend boundaries to the parks board, which would then be passed by the city council. We would finally know what the boundaries were.
At issue is the city's discretionary power over use of the land. Preserve land cannot be bought, sold, bartered, developed or used for much of anything but open and undeveloped recreational space without asking the general electorate for permission to do otherwise. Park land and other city land, on the other hand, can be more freely lent to school districts or city departments, or developed for commercial use.
The PMPC folks said they already knew the boundaries, and so did the retired parks staffers who had built the preserves, and a retired real estate department accountant who had purchased the land for the preserves. So did former mayor Terry Goddard, who presided over the charter amendments and a 1988 city council resolution which stated, in no uncertain terms, that South Mountain was part of the preserve system. Parks Department Director Jim Colley had said as much in letters he wrote to the PMPC in 1992.
But all that had somehow changed by last October. Suddenly the charter was vague, and designation of preserve land required an ordinance instead of a resolution. Furthermore, lands that had originally been bought for flood control or water tanks, couldn't be considered preserve land, nor could South Mountain and North Mountain parks, because they had been obtained by the city long before the bond issues that bought the preserves.
Suddenly, that was Jim Colley's story. And he's sticking to it.
"My interest is getting permanent boundaries that can only be changed by a vote of the people," he says.
Parks staffers spent the last several months going through boxes of records describing just how each parcel considered to be preserve had been purchased, and for what use. They collected that information on maps, and made recommendations to the parks board as to what should and should not be included in the preserves.
"We're getting 98 percent of what we thought was in the preserves," Colley says, and that appears to be so from the maps that Burke displayed at Thursday's board meeting.
To soften the news, the maps show what had been at risk as well as what the parks department is recommending be removed.
Four hundred acres of flood control lands west of Seventh Street, that the city claimed was not really preserve land, have been ceded to the preserves, as have North Mountain Park and the bulk of South Mountain. Roads that could have been built--extensions of North Avenue and 32nd Street, a stretch of Hatcher Road that would have connected to the Squaw Peak Parkway--have been abandoned.
On the other hand, the water towers have been shifted to non-preserve status, as has a 40-acre slash of Shadow Mountain, which, parks staffers claim, belongs to the water department. Forty more acres of water department land is being kept in the preserves at that location.
Several flood control dams and basins scattered across the preserves have also been excised and will be looked after by the streets department.
The radio tower farms on top of South and North mountains, will remain under control of the parks department, but will no longer be considered preserve land. (Or never were, as the department now argues. The towers atop Shaw Butte are on private property.) The same goes for the Rod and Gun Club and the Police Academy on South Mountain; the Pointe golf courses on South Mountain and at Thunderbird Avenue and Seventh Street; and Lookout and Mountain View parks, which are considered to be developed, flatland parks adjacent to the preserves.
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Furthermore, Burke and Colley have written an ordinance limiting those excised properties to their current uses. If the golf course leases expire, for example, then the land they sit on "shall thereafter be considered for inclusion in the mountain preserves, and upon its recommendation, the City Council may by ordinance designate the land to be mountain preserve. . . ."
And what may be, instead of will be, touched off as much dissent as chairman Thomas would allow.
When Gorsegner, the board member, asked that the proposed ordinance be read aloud so that the public would be aware of it, Thomas took more time telling him no than it would have taken to read it. Parks staffers scrambled to copy and distribute the ordinance wording anyway.
After the board meeting, Gorsegner told New Times, "It's the legal language that I'm concerned about. And the legal language got us here in the first place."