Pima County plans to buy, preserve Painted Hills desert area

2014-06-12T00:00:00Z 2014-06-12T09:16:33Z Pima County plans to buy, preserve Painted Hills desert areaBy Jamar Younger
and Darren DaRonco Arizona Daily Star
Arizona Daily Star

Pima County is on the verge of acquiring a scenic 286-acre parcel in the west-side Painted Hills area that county officials have coveted for years.

“Our main goal is preserving the site as open space in perpetuity,” county Supervisor Richard Elías said. “It’s important because it has great biological significance to the Tucson Mountains.”

The county plans to buy the property from the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System for $7.5 million, including a $3 million down payment with money from a 2004 open-space bond program, county documents show.

The most recent appraisal of the land set its value at $8 million to $12 million, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said.

If the deal is finalized and approved by the Board of Supervisors, Pima County would move closer to preserving Painted Hills — which lies where West Speedway and Anklam Road intersect — and connecting the area with Tucson Mountain Park to its west.

County officials are hoping to pay the balance of the cost with money allocated for open space from a possible November 2015 bond election.

If that option fails, then the money could come from a special environmental fund the county shares with the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort, funded with sales revenues from the resort.

In 2016, the county will start to receive 75 percent of the fund’s revenue, which could generate between $800,000 and $1 million per year.

The county would then pay five annual payments of about $1 million.

The Tucson City Council will have to approve a bond ordinance agreement because part of the property is within the city limits.

The Board of Supervisors will then have to vote to amend the ordinance to include the property and give final approval to the agreement, Huckelberry said.

The board should vote on the agreement no later than August, he said.

Representatives for the pension fund didn’t return phone calls Wednesday seeking comment.

Local officials have wanted the saguaro-studded Painted Hills property — which was slated for development — since 1997, when it was made part of that year’s open-space bond program.

The county was outbid in 2006 when the Dallas pension fund bought the property for $27 million.

Even though the county wanted to buy the Painted Hills parcel and connect it to Tucson Mountain Park, county officials balked at paying $93,000 an acre for a property with an assessed value at about $4 million at the time.

As a comparison, one year before the pension fund purchase, the property fetched $3.3 million, or $11,631 per acre, in two separate purchases.

The county had another shot at getting the property in 2012.

Back then, the pension fund and the city negotiated a land exchange involving the downtown Ronstadt Transit Center and the Painted Hills property. As part of the plan, the city would agree to sell the Painted Hills land to the county for $3.6 million.

But that plan collapsed when word leaked about the discussion and transit supporters protested.

Before that proposal, the pension fund clashed multiple times with the city of Tucson over water service to the land. The city won in court the right to refuse connecting water service to the Painted Hills property.

Contact reporter Jamar Younger at jyounger@azstarnet.com or 573-4242. On Twitter @JamarYounger

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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