Deconstructing the Phoenix Mountain Preserve

All these years we thought we knew them.
The Phoenix Mountain Preserves used to consist of 16,500 acres of South Mountain and 7,000 more acres in the mountains up north--Shaw Butte to Squaw Peak, Shadow and Lookout Mountains.

Now we're not so sure.
They were cobbled together over more than 50 years from large chunks of federal land, city parks and private lands bought with $70 million worth of bonds issued in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

They are inarguably one of the most remarkable amenities of life in Phoenix--mountains right in the city, a testament to a generation of horsemen and planners who envisioned the urban sprawl that lay ahead and moved to do something about it.

Those tracts of open space are so jealously guarded by Phoenicians that in 1985, after a stream of requests to develop portions of them, city voters decided to lock them up for good with an amendment to the City Charter, which functions as a constitution of sorts. According to that document, by law, there could be no alterations to the preserves without a vote of the general electorate. A year later, after a golf course showed up on South Mountain, the outraged voters went back to the polls and amended their amendment to make double damn sure that no one would touch the preserves again without clearing it with the voters.

So it's protected, right?
Not according to the Phoenix City Manager's Office, the City Attorney's office, or the director of the Parks, Recreation and Library Department.

Two debates this year have tested preserve boundaries.
The first was a squabble over whether the city police department could extend its training facility on South Mountain. Activists attending Parks Board meetings were astounded when James Colley, director of the city's Parks, Recreation and Library Department informed them that South Mountain was not really preserve land, and therefore not subject to the most stringent regulations.

The second fight is going on now over plans by Washington Elementary School District to build two new schools on the north side and extend its athletic fields into a city park, parts of which may be in the preserves. The city says the questionable tracts are on park land, but the Phoenix Mountains Preservation Council (PMPC), a citizen's watchdog group composed of many of the same people who pushed to build the preserve system in the first place, say otherwise. No one opposes a school. But there is a legal technicality that could set a dangerous precedent: If the land in question is preserve land, the deal could not go through without the approval of voters in a general election. And if it is possible to make an exception for school kids here, what situations could arise later?

The PMPC found a lawyer to plead its case to the Parks Board; the City of Phoenix hired a fact-finder to listen to the lawyer, and the Parks Department, and the school district, and the residents of the neighborhood near the park and then advise the Parks Board on who's right. Kent Reinhold of the City Attorney's office represented the Parks Department, and he laid out his client's position.

Astonishingly, the city holds that:
* The definitions of mountain preserves in the City Charter are vague and perhaps unconstitutional.

* What most people think of as preserves and what has been labeled as such on commercial maps, official city quarter section maps and city ledger sheets really consists of parcels bought for various purposes such as parks or flood plains, and may not pass muster as preserves lands.

* The ubiquitous signs announcing that "You are now Entering the Phoenix Mountains Preserve" were sometimes put up on non-preserve parcels just to inhibit use.

* A $950,000 survey of the preserves used to sue private citizens over property encroachments on preserves land didn't really set boundaries.

* South Mountain may not be preserves because the City Council declared it so by resolution instead of by ordinance; the city charter does not define the difference.

The fact-finder, paid $19,000 by the city, sided with the city, and the Parks Board voted to enter into agreement with the school district. The Phoenix Mountains Preservation Council is threatening to take the city to court over that decision. The outcome would redefine the preserves.

If a judge found for the PMPC, then the "generally recognized" boundaries of the preserves would hold. If he found against them, then the city would be free to make that decision without the consent of voters.

That there's any debate at all is a surprise to the people who wrote the charter amendment forbidding preserve development, to the mayor who presided over the amendment and subsequent council resolutions to protect the preserves, and to the retired parks and other city employees who administered the preserves through its formative years.