Longform

Deconstructing the Phoenix Mountain Preserve

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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.

Assistant City Attorney Kent Reinhold now dismisses that practice as bad bookkeeping. "Unfortunately, under the semantics of the time, it all kind of got lumped together as mountain preserve when some of it was being bought for an entirely different purpose," Reinhold says. "But because it was going to be kept vacant or because it was natural desert, everyone thought it would be included in the preserve."

Including the drafters of Chapter 26 of the city charter; the amendment passed in 1985 to protect the preserves.

"We were trying to cover all the bases so that when we did this we would have some definite boundaries," says Penny Howe, who chaired the drafting committee and who remains on the Parks Board.

The first section of Chapter 26 defines the preserves.
Item (a) reads, "That real property owned by the City at the time of adoption of this Chapter lying within any generally recognized mountain preserve area."

Items (b) and (c) referred to lands bought with the 1979 and 1984 bonds.
Item (d) is "That real property designated as 'Mountain Preserves' by the City Council by ordinance upon the recommendation of the Parks and Recreation Board."

And until this year, there seemed to be no question of what that meant. This March, the Parks department began to help the Phoenix Police Department extend its academy into the boundaries of the Phoenix Rod and Gun Club. Both have leased land on South Mountain from the Parks Department since 1948, long before anything there was designated off limits.

When the board met to discuss the proposal in May, Mike Goodman, an activist who rides herd on South Mountain issues for the Phoenix Mountains Preservation Council, was surprised at what he heard.

"The Parks Department came up with this amazing solution saying that the entire mountain park is not part of the preserve system and therefore it didn't have to deal," he says. "Since it wasn't in the preserve system, they could do what they want anyway."

The City Council in 1988 had passed a resolution keeping South Mountain as preserves, and Chapter 26 required an ordinance. Since only a resolution had been passed, South Mountain was not a preserve--yet--it was a park.

The activists were dumbfounded, and the logic seemed to fly in the face of general understanding.

Former mayor Goddard, whose council passed the resolution, expresses his own surprise at that conclusion. "If that was in any way legally insufficient, we were unaware of it," he says. "And in fact the thought was that this was what was needed to enforce the ordinance. I'm not sure why the city attorney would tell us one thing then and another now."

It was a turnabout conclusion for Colley as well. "I am somewhat amazed that there still remains the concern whether South Mountain Park is a part of the Phoenix Mountains Preserve system," he had written in a 1992 letter to the PMPC. "Let me reassure the Phoenix Mountains Preservation Council (PMPC) that South Mountain Park is a part of, and included in, the Phoenix Mountains Preserve system. The Phoenix City Council, in its resolution of 1988, made it clear that South Mountain Park is a part of the preserve system. I fully support this resolution, as does the staff of the Parks, Recreation and Library Department."

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Michael Kiefer