Nearly 40 years ago, residents of Boulder, Colo., became the first of any city in the United States to levy a sales tax on themselves to buy, manage and maintain open space.
Now, a grass-roots group of residents is taking another crack at gathering support for a similar effort in Oro Valley.
"I doubt we'll ever be able to accomplish what Boulder did," said Dick Eggerding, designated spokesman for the recently created Land Conservation Committee of Oro Valley, noting that Boulder passed its first bond issue for open space land acquisition in 1902. "But Boulder offers a wonderful role model to follow. There are huge differences between our towns, nevertheless, we can learn some big-time lessons from Boulder," Eggerding said.
Other committee members include Development Review Board members Al Kunisch and Richard Feinberg, Karen Rogers, a key figure in starting the town's Save-A-Plant Program, and Pat Spoerl, both members of the town's General Plan Steering Committee, Jim Kriegh, one of the town fathers, and Marilyn Cook, a board member of the Oro Valley Endowment Fund.
One of the committee's first objectives is the preservation of buildings on the historical Steam Pump Ranch, a 15-acre site west of Oracle Road between North First Avenue and East Tangerine Road, a former stagecoach stop for travelers north from Tucson and a watering hole for prospectors and Apaches.
"Steam Pump Ranch is a classic starting point," Eggerding said. "There is no doubt in my mind that Steam Pump has to be saved and it's got to be saved in a meaningful way.
"And this can be done in an economically viable way as well, where the developer, if he's willing, could turn this into a very positive thing" with the mix of business uses proposed for the site, currently zoned for one home per three acres.
"There are plenty of examples around this country where historic sites are saved and they end up being focal points, if you will, for retail development if it's done properly," Eggerding said. "But it's got to be done in a classy way."
The town is in an excellent position to accomplish this because the developers have to come to the town to change the zoning. In this regard, the town couldn't be in a better bargaining position, he said.
The developer, ARCADIS G&M Inc., wants to use the site for auto repair and sales facilities, offices, retail and drive-through restaurants.
In October of 2002, SWCA Inc., environmental consultants, submitted a report to ARCADIS G&M Inc. concluding that only two of the 11 structures on the site, spanning the periods of the 1870s and the 1930s, were worth preserving for historical purposes.
Oro Valley hired R. Brooks Jeffery, a heritage preservation consultant, to verify those conclusions in light of concerns that an architectural historian with experience in preservation was not used to assess issues of architectural integrity or the breadth of themes of significance on the entire ranch property that would preserve the essence of the Steam Pump Ranch environment.
The consultant recommended preserving seven of the 11 buildings as well as the surrounding setting as part of a Steam Pump Ranch Rural Historic District and allowing land uses that would "preserve the quality and character of Oro Valley's only remaining historic site."
In support of that recommendation, William S. Collins, deputy state historic preservation officer, notified Oro Valley in January that his office was "willing to offer any assistance it can" in support of a preservation effort and a listing of Steam Pump Ranch on the National Register of Historic Places.
Other sites high on the committee's priority list are the 188-acre Kelly Ranch east of Oracle at Tangerine, a chunk of the 9,500 acres of state trust land north of town, 25 acres north of the 213-acre Naranja Town Site and 42 acres surrounded by Calle Concordia on the south, Linda Vista Boulevard on the north between Egleston Drive and Oracle Road.
The committee's greatest challenge, Eggerding said, will be to educate the public on what can and can't be done and the cost of accomplishing land conservation goals agreed to by the public.
"If there's no strong public sentiment about this, there's no sense going forward," he said. "This isn't motherhood, apple pie and the flag. This is something very concrete that has to be evaluated before it's implemented and it won't happen if the citizenry isn't there to support it. A strong public edict on land conservation forces all the parties to come together to work something out. It's an idea that has to be sold from both economical and environmental perspectives, for without both there can be no sale."
Specifically, the group is working to gather public support to fund open space purchases by means of a sales tax increase. A half-cent sales tax increase above the town's 2 percent sales tax, as an example, would mean an additional $1.5 million in town revenues.
In order not to be perceived as some splinter group, the committee is seeking Town Council support and sanctioning under the auspices of the town's General Plan which is now being revised and is scheduled to go before voters in November.
A Town Council study session is planned to discuss the town's role in this effort and possible assistance from Town Manager Chuck Sweet and Finance Director David Andrews to identify other land conservation possibilities and the means to finance the purchase of these lands.
"We're at the point where we have to stop the rhetoric and do something," Eggerding said. "The emotional diatribes of the past just aren't going to get the job done.
"Open space, by its very nature in Arizona, is in very limited supply with 85 percent of the land owned either by the state, federal government or Indian tribes," he said. "That doesn't leave very much, so you have all this pressure for development on the remaining land.
"Bringing the issue closer to home, the history of the town is such that we've gone through transitions from Pima County to Oro Valley becoming a town and that has brought with it all kinds of land use issues," he said.
Only once before has there been any such move on the part of any group of residents to put the question of open space land acquisition before voters. The Oro Valley Neighborhood Coalition did just that in 1996 only to have 76 percent of voters reject their referendum on the purchase of Honey Bee Canyon.
"Past efforts have been too emotional," Eggerding said. "The issue of open space land conservation has always been presented as save, save, save in an all-too-emotional way, not in terms of let's preserve the land because of inherent archaeological, historical and environmental reasons.
"There's been a lot of name calling and emotionalism as opposed to presenting the facts and a meaningful way to pay for it," he said. "Cost factors can't be underemphasized and in the previous attempt those cost factors weren't explained very well."
There are three phases the committee deems critical to gaining public support: identifying open space that is readily and legally available; setting priorities on acquiring those lands; and determining a method of payment, including the costs of maintenance and operations.
"This has to be done in a very calculated, unemotional way and requires the cooperation of a variety of sources," Eggerding said. "That includes the general public which has to buy into the idea of open space conservation, the developer who should be willing to compromise in given situations and the Town Council and town administration in being creative as to what a developer can and cannot do and coming up with funding possibilities.
In light of recent annexation efforts that will bring into the town the Plaza Escondida and La Entrada shopping areas, as well as commercial properties on both the northeast and northwest sides of Magee and Oracle roads, an increased sales tax takes on even greater significance, he said.
"Just think of the impact now that an increased sales tax could have on land conservation as a result of that," he said. "And the more retail you add, the more emphasis this receives because it adds revenues for open space.
"Another thing I like about the sales tax is that it's like a user tax. The people who come into our town and use our facilities would help us in acquiring open spaces.
"I'm confident in the intelligence of the community to realize that the purchase of open space will enhance their quality of life," Eggerding said. "And I also think they'll figure out it will enhance the investment they've made in their homes. It's a proven fact that where you have this kind of attitude on the part of the public, property values are sustained, if not increased dramatically.
"So there's an economic factor to all this," he said. "In the long run the resident gets a greater return on the dollar in terms of environmental aspects and terms of property values.
"I'm a cockeyed optimist," said Eggerding, founder and current president of the Greater Oro Valley Art Council and former chairman of the task force charged with presenting proposed improvements to the 213-acre Naranja Town Site to the council. "I wouldn't be doing the things I do if I weren't.
"But I also have a lot of confidence in the people who live here and a lot of confidence in my country and where this economy is going," he said. "Right now we're in the doldrums, so to speak, in terms of the economy, but when this thing turns around, and it will, the revenue stream is just going to go through the roof, particularly in retail sales. The more retail space we add, the more it's going to increase our ability to follow through on land conservation," he said. "The two go hand in glove."
Mayor Paul Loomis said the group has been asked to submit an information package to the town for review and comment after which a study session of the council will be held.
Loomis questioned how often a sales tax could be implemented to finance the numerous land purchases sought.
Another scenario over the next 18 months is to research, market and identify additional sources of funding and possibly seek a general revenue tax through a bond issue that could cover costs related to improvements at the Naranja Town Site as well as open space purchases and the creation of a town fire department.
The need to establish a funding mechanism for the acquisition and management of open space lands has been recognized in both the town's 1996 General Plan and the latest revision under review. "Without timely establishment of such a mechanism," the plan acknowledges, "the town will continue to develop and further limit options for establishing a connected system of open space."