In a city known for resorts, golf and nightlife, Scottsdale has quietly veered down a different path the past two decades by protecting 33 square miles of desert and mountain terrain in its McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
The city's 21,400-acre preserve has grown to include 60 miles of trails in the picturesque McDowell Mountains, with rocky paths leading to cactus-studded Windgate Pass, Tom's Thumb, Sunrise Peak and Lost Dog Wash.
But Scottsdale's effort to protect more than a quarter of the city's land area faces a steep challenge with funding running out and land-acquisition costs that could run as high as half a billion dollars.
While the city will add 6,400 acres by the end of the year, city leaders -- cautious in the post-recession recovery -- are hesitant to commit themselves to new funding to pay for the final 12 percent of the land targeted for the preserve. Scottsdale is not currently pursuing funding initiatives to complete the preserve.
"That is something the citizens are going to have to decide," said Scottsdale City Council candidate Virginia Korte, a former preserve task-force chairwoman. "It's going to require additional taxation."
Preserve advocates, who twice persuaded voters to approve sales-tax increases to fund land conservation, must contend with a new set of challenges:
The land targeted to complete the 34,400-acre preserve is likely to be the most expensive the city has acquired at state land auctions.
Scottsdale could encounter competition at future auctions from developers eager to build expensive homes after years of sitting on the sidelines.
State matching grants through the Growing Smarter conservation fund are likely to run out next year. That fund has provided Scottsdale with $62 million for 6,800 acres of preserve land and Phoenix with about $106 million for 6,300 acres for its preserve.
Scottsdale's preserve advocates also will be vying for funding along with other interests eager for money to build the city's Desert Discovery interpretive center, a multipurpose event arena at WestWorld and a Western museum.
In their favor, conservationists say their success in growing the preserve from nothing 20 years ago will persuade residents to support acquisition of the final acreage to create a preserve more than twice the size of Phoenix's South Mountain Park, one of the nation's largest city parks.
Opening the northern preserve areas will add another 160 miles of trails and broaden the use for mountain bikers, equestrians and hikers on flatter desert terrain.
The city tallied 291,000 preserve visits last year, and that is expected to increase as more trails and facilities are completed over the next few years, said Scott Hamilton, Scottsdale trail planner.
Jacques Girard, a McDowell Sonoran Conservancy hiking guide, said he enjoys taking visitors out to learn about the desert flora and fauna.
"I came here from Canada, and I used to think the desert was the most barren place," he said. "But since I've been hiking, I've learned so much about this magical place called the Sonoran Desert."
Scottsdale tourism interests have generally supported the preserve, which is used by residents and out-of-town visitors, and three resorts have been proposed that would take advantage of their proximity to its growing network of trails.
The preserve is a sanctuary for bobcats, javelinas, deer, coyotes, raptors, birds, snakes and lizards. It also provides vast desert and mountain terrain for non-motorized recreation.
"We have quite strong support from citizens that are willing to support the preserve vision," said James Heitel, McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission chairman. "That's brought us to this stage, and the power of those winds will probably help the politicians follow that breeze."
Heitel and former preserve Chairman Howard Myers argue that buying the final tracts of the preserve would be cheaper than paying for roads, utilities and public facilities if the areas along Pima Road near Dynamite Boulevard are developed.
Mayor Jim Lane, running for re-election this year, said his preference is to take a "good hard look" at the tradeoffs of developing the area, the city's economic condition and "whether or not this is necessary, cost-effective and somewhat lends itself to the overall program."
Mayoral challenger John Washington said the question is whether voters have the appetite to tax themselves for the new land as they have in past elections in 1995 and 2004.
"The bottom line is if we can't pay in a reasonable fashion that's palatable to the voters, that's an issue unto itself," Washington said.
Korte said the recommended preserve boundary is "not cut in stone."
"I think the citizens will need to weigh other critical needs in our community, such a creating a more robust arts and cultural and tourism community," she said.
Last land parcels costly
The McDowell Sonoran Preserve generally stretches from Cactus to Pinnacle Peak roads and from Thompson Peak Parkway east to 136th Street. The city has been adding thousands of acres in far northern Scottsdale over the past three years, primarily northwest of 136th Street and Dynamite Boulevard.
A 2011 McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission report estimated it could cost $550 million to acquire the final parcels of state land for the preserve, close to 6,600 acres.
Scottsdale has already spent about $500 million on land-acquisition costs and an additional $300 million on legal and financial costs for municipal bonds for the preserve's existing 21,400 acres, said Kroy Ekblaw, city preserve director.
Scottsdale plans to bid on 6,400 acres of state trust land late this year that is appraised at $88.2 million. Those three parcels south of the Stagecoach Pass road alignment connect the preserve to the Tonto National Forest and provide a land bridge considered vital for wildlife habitat.
Scottsdale is completing the Tom's Thumb trailhead improvements this month, and the Brown's Ranch trailhead will open additional trails next summer.
City wants matching funds
As residents debate whether to come up with additional funding for the final, costliest acreage, the city still has money to spend on preserve land.
Scottsdale hopes to receive up to $10 million from the state Growing Smarter fund to buy 6,400 acres of state trust land at three auctions in December. The city also is gearing up to buy 2,400 acres of steep, mountainous terrain southwest of Bell Road and 136th Street next year at an undetermined cost.
Scottsdale expects to have $100 million to $130 million in bonding capacity for preserve acquisitions over the next few years, said Lee Guillory, city finance director.
Scottsdale's sales-tax measures for the preserve expire in 2025 and 2034. Extending the measures would not provide any immediate increase in the city's bonding capacity for the preserve.
The preserve commission has considered other ways of raising funds, including user fees, an improvement district funded by property taxes or another sales-tax measure. Voters would have to approve those tax hikes.
Scottsdale is likely to spend about $88 million on this year's three acquisitions, including the $10 million from the state Growing Smarter fund.
Next year, Scottsdale would have $25 million to $55million in bonding capacity to acquire 2,400 acres .
However, any leftover preserve money for Scottsdale after 2013 would be far short of the hundreds of millions of dollars needed for the remaining acreage.
Those parcels of state trust land are generally northeast of Dynamite Boulevard and Pima Road near the Legends Trails golf community, along with two parcels southwest of that intersection.
The Arizona State Land Department is likely to wait to sell those parcels until the real- estate market improves and the agency can get premium prices .
The land is zoned for low-density residential development, but it could command high prices because it's some of the last large tracts of Scottsdale land available for development.
State fund dwindles
Environmentalists say there has not been support for additional conservation funding at the Arizona Legislature in recent years.
Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter, said lawmakers created the Growing Smarter conservation fund in 1998 to thwart the Sierra Club's growth-management initiative, which would have more severely restricted urban sprawl.
The Growing Smarter referendum, approved by voters, has contributed about $174 million to conservation of open space over the past decade. Annual allocations of $18 million expired in 2011, and the fund has dwindled to $40 million this year.
Carla, her full legal name, a former conservancy director, said Scottsdale residents should be proud of the preserve conservation effort but insisted the city needs a strategy for acquiring the final parcels.
"It's really disappointing nobody has stepped up to really advocate for full completion of the preserve," said Carla, one of the grass-roots preserve advocates in the early 1990s. "If you're going to quit the plan, then have an honest discussion with citizens and let them either approve or disapprove it."
By Peter Corbett and Beth Duckett, The Republic|azcentral.com Aug 22, 2012
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