The saguaro-studded Painted Hills at the gateway to Tucson Mountain Park finally is getting the protection it has long deserved, due in large part to years of cooperative efforts between Pima County and the city of Tucson. City and county officials worked hard and in concert to achieve this milestone, as neither entity could have done it alone.
The Pima County Board of Supervisors on Monday approved a $7.5 million agreement to purchase the 287 pristine acres that make up the striking Painted Hills between West Speedway and West Anklam Road, using bond funds that the Tucson City Council allocated for a $3 million down payment. The willing seller is the Dallas Police and Fire Retirement System.
A less preservation-minded Board of Supervisors in the 1960s had zoned the acreage for residential development, but the ravine-laced rocky crags of the Painted Hills repeatedly defied development efforts. Pima County and city voters approved open space bonds to purchase Painted Hills in 1997 and again in 2004.
The owners sold the acreage in 2006 to the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System, which hoped to develop it with luxury homes. Employing a Las Vegas-based developer, the new owner filed development plans with the county seeking to build up to 260 homes. The county was without legal means to protect Painted Hills because of the 1960s zoning.
That’s where the City Council intervened. Development of the Painted Hills would require water service from Tucson Water. Water is a precious resource in Arizona, is expensive to deliver to a place like Painted Hills, and must be carefully managed to ensure we have water for future generations.
In 2008, the Tucson City Council adopted a new Water Service Area policy that discontinued the “automatic” granting of water to areas outside Tucson Water’s obligated service area. In 2010, Councilman Paul Cunningham spearheaded the council’s reconsideration of Painted Hills’ annexation into the city as a means to obtain water service.
The unhappy Dallas Police and Fire Pension System went all the way to the Arizona Supreme Court seeking to overturn the city’s policy, but the City Council held firm and the eventual ruling was in our favor.
There were efforts in the Arizona Legislature to force Tucson Water to provide water to the proposed development but they, too, met with failure. Finally, the Dallas entity was willing to sell, and, in July, the Tucson City Council unanimously voted to allocate $3.5 million of its 2004 county open-space bond money for the Painted Hills.
Pima County and Tucson residents have proven time and again that we value open space and are fiercely protective of our natural heritage. We vote at the polls, with our pocketbooks and with our hiking boots to demonstrate this.
We know that saguaro-lined ridges, wildlife connectivity and leaving some parcels untouched are part of what makes Southern Arizona special. Preserving Painted Hills is good for tourism and the economy, and protects vital resources like water.
But most importantly, it preserves our environment for our children and our grandchildren.
Protecting Painted Hills is a significant achievement, but it is does not mean that we are finished preserving open space in Pima County.
There is still a great need to protect pristine, unique or otherwise important sites.
We will both support those efforts and we know that Pima County and Tucson residents also are ready to take up the challenge.
It has been almost 17 years since protecting Painted Hills first was approved by voters. It has not been an easy task to complete, but in concert with our colleagues on the City Council and the Board of Supervisors, with voters, with neighborhood activists and with conservationists, we have fought a good fight — and won.