Deconstructing the Phoenix Mountain Preserve

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At the May 1998 Parks Board meeting, Colley had dramatically changed his tune, and told the activists that neither the 1988 Resolution nor Chapter 26 categorically protected South Mountain as preserves. "Chapter 26 isn't worth the paper it's printed on," he reportedly said.

"I found that rather offensive particularly since I was the chair of the committee that wrote the chapter," Penny Howe says.

Until the City Council passes an ordinance, according to the city, South Mountain is a park not a preserve.

"The designation hasn't happened," says Parks Deputy Director Jim Burke. "We're not writers of any of that language," Burke says of the charter amendment and the resolution."

Kent Reinhold of the City Attorney's office, says, "The people who may have signed off on that are long gone."

In February of this year, the Parks Board agreed to look into forming an IGA or intergovernmental agreement with the Washington Elementary School District. The school district wanted to build two schools near Seventh and Peoria avenues, where the Charles M. Christiansen Trail 100 spills bikers, hikers and horses out of the Mountain preserves and into Mountain View Park.

Mountain View Park was purchased by the city in the 1960s, before any talk of preserves, and in 1976, three acres on a south corner were filled with lawns and playing fields and parking lots like any traditional community park. The remaining 41 acres were left as natural desert, and when the preserves came into existence, those desert acres were marked with signs saying they were part of it. Even so, the Parks Board decided to develop it further as recently as 1993, but never found the funds to do so.

Enter the Washington Elementary School District. Its schools needed more space for playing fields than they could rustle up on their own and so they came to the Parks Department. Parks had space but no money to develop it; schools had money but not enough space. It could have been a win-win situation except for one legal question: Was the undeveloped portion of Mountain View a free-standing park or had it been absorbed into the mountain preserves? If it were a park, the deal could go through the Parks Board. But if it were preserves, the deal would have be run past the voters.

The school district and the Parks Department said it was park, the Phoenix Mountains Preservation Council said otherwise. There could be precedents set, the PMPC reasoned, and they weren't about to let that happen.

Maxine Lakin, PMPC's current president, and its octogenarian warhorse Ruth Hamilton went to meet with Parks Director Colley and his deputy Burke.

"They said, 'Would you compromise and say this much is preserve and this much is park?'" Lakin recalls. She responded that she didn't have the authority to make that decision--and didn't think they did either. And as the conversation continued, she realized that the Parks staffers were suggesting that adjacent North Mountain Park might not be preserves either.

The nice gray-haired ladies were stunned, and the city held fast.
In a May letter to Leslie Spencer-Snider, another PMPC member, City Manager Frank Fairbanks wrote, "Del Seppanen, a retired 25-year employee of the Parks, Recreation and Library Department, is a member of your volunteer group. Mr. Seppanen has confirmed with Messrs. Colley, Burke, and Swanson his concurrence that the land was purchased for park purpose and is not a component of the Mountain Preserve land."

It was news to Seppanen.
"I never said that," he claims. Seppanen knew it had been bought as a park, but felt it had been another of the seeds that the city built preserves from.

The Phoenix Mountains Preservation Council brought in attorney Jay Dushoff to represent it against the city and school district. The city hired retired Arizona Supreme Court Judge Robert Corcoran as its fact-finder and mediator; paid him $200 an hour for research and $250 an hour for meetings. The clock started.

Dushoff focused on the charter definitions of what was "generally recognized" as mountains preserve to try to prove his case. And to establish those boundaries he asked the city for its maps of the preserves; the city mysteriously told him there was none.

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Michael Kiefer