Longform

Deconstructing the Phoenix Mountain Preserve

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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.

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."

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Michael Kiefer