Babbitt's Secret Growth-Control Plan

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Moon was asked to investigate legal methods of federalizing the lands. U.S. Representative Bob Stump is considering sponsoring the necessary federal legislation (though his staff refused to comment); such legislation would have to happen this spring, according to people working on the deal.

When Arizona became a state, its lands were cut into squares and doled out among state and federal and private interests in such a way that a land-use map literally resembles a checkerboard. Mike Taylor from BLM's Phoenix field office, which drew up maps following Babbitt's suggestions, describes the Babbitt proposal as "land tenure adjustments" -- attempts to clear up the messy management of checkerboard lands. The piecemeal dispersal of lands makes land-use management unwieldy. Former governor J. Fife Symington III and congressmen Stump and Jim Kolbe have all pushed legislation in the past that would have consolidated state and federal lands. Kolbe even proposed a federalization of the Empire-Cienega grasslands, an area Babbitt now wants to consolidate.

Closest to Phoenix, Babbitt has drawn a line from the Prescott National Forest almost to Carefree Highway. The line cuts diagonally across Lake Pleasant, ensuring that its northern and western shores will not be easily developed. It encompasses the Hassayampa River and Hell's Canyon Wildernesses, the dormant Castle Hot Springs resort and all the high Sonoran Desert canyons in between. More than half of the land within the boundary already belongs to BLM; 58,000 acres would be federalized.

When the Coronado National Forest was established, it was laid down in islands across southern and eastern Arizona. Babbitt's plan connects four of those islands and protects the rare grasslands that stretch south from I-10 toward Sonoita and Patagonia, an area already threatened by real estate sales. It would take 106,357 acres of state trust land there.

The third parcel locks up 27,000 acres of state trust land in pristine Aravaipa Canyon, plugging a gap in the landscape between BLM lands and a segment of the Coronado forest.

According to his maps, Babbitt proposes giving up 12,900 acres of BLM land near Wickenburg; 22,800 acres near Bullhead City; 32,000 acres near Florence and Oracle; 480 acres along I-15 near the Nevada border; 900 acres along I-15 near the Utah border; 3,400 mostly Colorado Riverfront acres in Yuma; and various small parcels in Tucson and Phoenix.

Babbitt doesn't want a fight, according to those working with him on the plan. The right wing in the state Legislature -- which has already issued a memorial condemning national monuments like those declared in January -- may see it as a federal land grab.

Mike Taylor of BLM doesn't think Babbitt plans to turn the lands he proposes to take over into national monuments, but merely set them aside as BLM lands, which could be grazed or mined but not developed for housing.

"It's a different level of protection -- if you want to call it protection," he says, "and a different level of management, too."

On a recent evening, Grant Woods sits in an office next to the KFYI studio where he does his talk radio show, reflecting on the political minefield that is growth management.

Woods took a visible stand when he joined forces with the Sierra Club and the Center for Law in the Public Interest on their Citizens' Growth Management Initiative.

"The way I look at it," he says, "in all probability, Arizona would not do much to manage growth or open space or any of our natural wonders out there.

"I could defend [the Sierra Club initiative] as opposed to nothing," he continues. "My view was I would rather put in something that was too tough and have to peel it back, because at least we would have stopped the degradation of Arizona. And in environmental issues, that's important, because there's no going back. Once something's developed, it's ruined, it's over."

Both the Citizens' Growth Management Initiative and Growing Smarter Plus are lengthy documents detailing how land would be developed and managed. Proponents of both insist that their plan provides the most public input.

At the center of the debate are CGMI's strict growth boundaries and impact fees. Every municipality with more than 2,500 residents would be required to project its growth over 10 years and draw a line that development could not cross. Developers would have to pay for roads and schools and sewers necessary to support residential and industrial developments within the growth boundaries.

The growth boundaries are seen as draconian by some, hiking up land prices inside the line while diminishing them on the outside.

Growing Smarter Plus suggests that municipalities set voluntary growth boundaries -- cast as a line beyond which they would not provide utilities. The measure leaves development fees up to the cities to charge if they wish.

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Michael Kiefer