Open Space Bonds: Past, Present, and Future

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Do you believe we need to protect open space in Pima County? Do you believe in a connected and resilient Sonoran Desert for both people and wildlife? We do!

Below we’ve put together a set of Frequently Asked Questions about purchasing open space with Pima County bond funding, past, present, and future. Have a question that isn’t answered here? Send us an email or give us a call and we’d love to talk to you! For a comprehensive list of Frequently Asked Questions that address all of the project categories, visit Pima County’s bond election website here.

PAST OPEN SPACE BOND PROGRAMS

THE 2015 BOND PROPOSAL

FINANCING THE 2015 OPEN SPACE BOND

 

PAST OPEN SPACE BOND PROGRAMS

What is the history of Pima County’s Bond Program?

Pima County has a long history of protecting important open space using bond funds. On May 20, 1997, Pima County voters approved $27.9 million for open space acquisition. In this election, 61% percent of voters supported protecting open space. On May 18, 2004, with a healthy economy, voters approved $174.3 million for open space acquisition with a margin of 66%. $95 million will be available for future open space acquisition if Proposition 430 is approved by voters in November 2015. (Return to top)

How much land has been protected with Pima County’s past two Open Space Bonds?

According to Pima County, past open space bonds since 2004 have supported the “purchase of 52 properties totaling 47,000 acres, expanding regional parklands and conservation areas, providing 20 years of mitigation for future development, and increasing recreational access via seven new trailheads and 77 miles of new trails.” With grazing leases included, the total protected land in Pima County is over 200,000 acres.

The 1997 open space bond program allowed for the purchase of 27 properties that total 7,200 acres. (Return to top)

Where are the lands located that have been protected with the past two Open Space Bonds?

Open space acquisition falls into various categories. Habitat Protection Priorities include lands that have high ecological value and are biologically important for conservation. Community Open Space includes properties that have been identified by neighborhood and community groups. In 2004, areas that were specifically requested by cities and towns for conservation were labeled as Jurisdictional Open Space.

Many important properties have been protected with previous open space bonds ranging from riparian areas to upland Sonoran Desert to cottonwood/willow habitat all over eastern Pima County. Pima County currently manages over 200,000 acres for conservation.

Bar V Ranch was acquired in 2005 with 2004 open space bond funds. This ranch totals 14,400 acres and lies between the Santa Rita and Rincon mountains in the Cienega Valley, which is a critical wildlife corridor. The ranch includes a significant portion of Davidson Canyon, an important tributary and water source to Cienega Creek and the Tucson Basin. Bar V Ranch also protects important riparian habitat crucial for several vulnerable species, including the lowland leopard frog and the Gila topminnow.  According to Pima County, “Habitats along Cienega Creek support over 280 native species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and insects that either reside in or frequently visit the Preserve. This includes over 150 species of birds. The Preserve is especially important to neo-tropical migratory birds, which seasonally utilize the area for nesting. The presence of perennial stream flow supports native frog and fish populations that are found very infrequently in the desert environment.” Click here to learn more.

Not far from Bar-V Ranch are Sands and Clyne Ranches. Located in southeast Pima County, these ranches were acquired between 2008 and 2010 with 2004 open space bond funds. Both ranches are crucial for habitat connectivity from the Santa Rita to Whetstone Mountains and contain critical habitat for many Priority Vulnerable Species including Bell’s vireo, the lesser long-nosed bat, and desert box turtle. Both ranches contain high quality native grasslands.

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Sands Ranch. Photo by Tom Wiewandt.

 

Numerous properties have also been protected in the Tortolita Mountains that have been added to Tortolita Mountain Park. These additions not only protect wildlife habitat, but they create more outdoor recreational opportunities for Pima County residents and visitors. The Tortolita Mountains are important for wildlife traveling from the Santa Catalina and Tucson Mountains.

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Sunset in the Tortolita Mountains. Photo by Bill Lesch.

 

Many properties were acquired that expanded Tucson Mountain Park. Examples include the Painted Hills property and the Sweetwater Preserve. Painted Hills, purchased in 2014 and located in the Tucson Mountains between Speedway and Anklam Roads, totals 287-acres and is important for wildlife habitat and provides outdoor recreation opportunities for residents and visitors. Sweetwater Preserve totals 703.26 acres and is located in the eastern foothills of the Tucson Mountains. It lies a half mile from Saguaro National Park West and is important for habitat and wildlife connectivity. It was purchased with 2004 bond funds and is a top destination for hikers and mountain bikers in the Tucson area.

To see all the properties protected with past open space bond funding, see Pima County’s Open Space and Habitat Protection interactive map(Return to top)

THE CURRENT BOND PROPOSAL

Why does the Pima County Board of Supervisors recommend bonding to acquire additional Open Space?

Watchable wildlife opportunities, such as birding, contributes to the local economy. Photo by Lousie Zemaitis.

Watchable wildlife opportunities, such as birding, contribute to the local economy. Photo by Lousie Zemaitis.

According to a set of FAQs about the bond program published by Pima County:

“There are multiple reports available that attempt to quantify the economic impacts associated with land conservation, parks themselves, and outdoor recreation. The results show that these activities combined directly support thousands of jobs in Pima County and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in direct spending locally. For example, in 2013, the National Park Service estimated that 680,000 visitors to Saguaro National Park spent over $41 million locally, supporting 570 jobs. In 2008, it was estimated that Tucson Mountain Park had even more visitors, excluding those to the Desert Museum and Old Tucson.  One single outdoor recreation activity, wildlife watching, was estimated in 2001 alone to generate $174 million in sales locally, supporting 3,196 jobs.

Other economic benefits include increased property values for residences in proximity to undeveloped natural areas, reduced healthcare costs, retaining and attracting young professionals to the region, cost savings to local governments and taxpayers by not having to extend public infrastructure to far-flung areas, and reduced flood insurance premiums.

The MSCP will help protect endangered species like the Lesser Long nosed Bat. Credit USFWS.

The MSCP will help protect endangered species like the Lesser Long nosed Bat. Credit USFWS.

In addition, Pima County is pursuing a permit under the Endangered Species Act that will increase certainty for public and private developers regarding Endangered Species Act compliance. This is called the Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP). Pima County is one of the largest developers in the region, building roads, libraries, parks, sewer improvements, etc. The permit will be for 30 years and will streamline the Endangered Species compliance process for the County and private developers in unincorporated Pima County in return for the County setting aside land for conservation, among other commitments.  These land acquisition costs would otherwise have to be funded at the individual development project level.  Acquisitions completed with 2004 voter-approved bond funds resulted in enough mitigation land to support 20 years of expected development impacts. Additional mitigation land is needed to support the remaining 10 years of expected development impacts. Click here to learn more about Pima County’s Multi-Species Conservation Plan.

Study after study has found that having open space available to residents improves quality of life.  According to a 2009 study by the George Wright Society, “many researchers have come to the conclusion that humans are dependent on nature not only for material needs (food, water, shelter, etc) but perhaps more importantly for psychological, emotional, and spiritual needs.” The study also states that “natural environments play a vital role in human health and wellbeing through providing access to nature.” Open space provides recreational opportunities, clean air, and protects water quality. According to the Trust for Public Land, “open space captures precipitation, reduces stormwater management costs, and by protecting underground water sources, open space can reduce the cost of drinking water up to ten-fold.” Open space also protects important historical and cultural resources such as historic landmarks and archaeological sites. Protecting open space is also helping accomplish the goals of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan (SDCP), in which Pima County is invested.

Past bond funds have protected many important parcels, but many are still isolated from other protected areas. By strategically protecting additional open space, Pima County can “connect the dots” to create connected corridors for wildlife movement and conserved habitat. Protecting additional open space will build on the investments already made. (Return to top)

Is there a list available of what properties will be acquired? If Proposition 430 passes, who will decide what lands will be purchased with levied bond dollars? Why has so much land been identified by Pima County as conservation protection priorities? Will the County be able to purchase all of the identified lands if Proposition 430 passes?

Pima County has a map that illustrates conservation priorities. The Coalition has also produced a map using Pima County’s spatial data. If you are interested in the ownership of certain parcels, you can use the County’s Map Guide tool (works only in Internet Explorer). The information provided in Map Guide is public information. However, there is currently no list of eligible properties prioritized for conservation. A reason for this is to protect the privacy of property owners.

The Conservation Acquisition Commission (CAC) is an eleven member citizen advisory committee that is responsible for reviewing all proposed open space acquisitions. The CAC makes recommendations to the Pima County Board of Supervisors on all open space bond acquisitions, proposed amendments to the open space portion of the Bond Implementation Plan Ordinance, management of the acquisition process, and management of lands acquired for open space. The members of the CAC are appointed by each member of the Board of Supervisors, the County Administrator, local conservation organizations, and others. No property can be purchased unless it is first recommended by the CAC. In addition, no property can be purchased unless the purchase cost is at or near appraised value based on an appraisal approved by the County (Source: Pima County Prop 430 FAQ).

The Conservation Acquisition Committee has a detailed process that has prioritized acquisitions based upon ecological value, eligibility, and cost. In addition, acquisition by the County depends on multiple factors including changing markets, appraisal values, the willingness of land owners to sell, negotiations, habitat and cultural values, etc. The lands identified in the map below illustrate the eligible lands the County has adopted for conservation based on the Conservation Lands System and the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

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Click the image to open the map in a new tab.

 

According to Pima County, “The bond package as proposed includes $95 million to continue the County’s land conservation program, as well as $3.75 million for new and improved trailheads and trails to expand outdoor recreation opportunities at County mountain parks and the Coronado National Forest. The economic benefits of land conservation and outdoor nature-based recreation are significant to our region in particular. According to VisitTucson, the primary reason visitors travel here is our natural environment.”

The lands identified by Pima County as conservation protection priorities have been chosen based on the best available science and many years of research and planning. In 2001, the Maeveen Marie Behan Conservation Lands System (MMBCLS) was adopted as part of the Environmental Element of the Pima County Comprehensive Plan Update.  According to Pima County, the MMBCLS, “categorizes and identifies locations of priority biological resources within Pima County, and provides policy guidelines for the conservation of these resources. These guidelines are applied to certain types of land use changes requested of the Board of Supervisors.”  The MMBCLS was adopted by the County to guide development and conservation decisions, and was created based on the presence of suitable habitat for multiple Priority Vulnerable Species. In 2003, The Nature Conservancy and the Arizona Land and Water Trust applied selection criteria and goals to MMBCLS lands. The result was a selection of 525,000 acres of the most important lands to conserve first. These became known as “Habitat Protection Priorities.” These areas have been combined with other properties important to the community to form the eligible properties identified in the 2015 open space bond.

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If Prop 430 passes, important open spaces, like those in the Tucson Mountains, could be protected. Photo by Tom Wiewandt.

 

Even though many acres have been identified by the Conservation Acquisition Committee as priorities for conservation, not all eligible lands will be protected with bond funds. While privately owned lands and State Trust Lands have been identified for acquisition, property owners are not always willing to sell their lands, and State Trust Lands are required by law to be put up for auction and sold to the highest bidder. Moreover, the acreage identified as priorities for conservation far exceeds the $95 million allocation. Additional funding sources will be needed in the future to fully achieve the vision and goals of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan(Return to top)

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Areas along Cienega Creek have been prioritized for conservation in the 2015 open space bond. Photo by Tom Wiewandt.

 

Why $95 Million for Open Space Conservation?

In November 2014, supporters of open space made a strong case for $120 million at a public BAC meeting. The BAC tentatively approved this larger amount, but later chose to decrease funding for numerous projects as the time came to make a final recommendation to the Board of Supervisors for the entire bond package.

In early 2015, 99 bond projects were approved by the Bond Advisory Committee (BAC) and the Board of Supervisors totaling $815 million. Because of the large number of projects, funding for open space acquisition was approved at only $95 million.

See also Pima County’s Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) tab. (Return to top)

Will the acquired open space lands be protected from development and modification in perpetuity? How will the county ensure these lands are legally protected?

Lands that are purchased and owned by the County will be managed for conservation by Pima County’s Natural Resources Parks and Recreation Department. As of this writing, conservation easements have not yet been placed on past open space acquisitions. However, once the County’s Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSCP) is finalized and approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the County will be issued an “incidental take permit” that authorizes impacts to threatened and endangered species habitats caused by otherwise lawful development approved by the County, such as capital improvement projects. The MSCP will commit the County to protecting lands in perpetuity as mitigation for these impacts.  The MSCP specifies that County-approved development will be calculated and mitigated for ahead of development via the establishment of conservation easements that will protect lands in perpetuity. The Endangered Species Act specifies the requirements for mitigation lands, one of which is assurance that mitigation lands are protected in perpetuity.

The County also manages many acres of grazing leases. Ranchers have entered into agreements with the County where they can still operate working ranches on these lands, but must abide by guidelines designed to protect these areas and manage their operations in an ecologically sensitive manner. This allows ranchers to continue their business operations while also protecting important natural areas from development.  The costs of operation and maintenance on these county-owned and leased lands are borne by the ranchers. (Return to top)

Are open space lands owned by the County accessible to the public? What County and public uses are and are not permitted?

Yes. According to Pima County, every property purchased by the County as part of this bond-funded open space acquisition program will be open to the public consistent with the types of public access provided to properties purchased by the County with past voter-approved bond funds. The 2004 voter-approved bond program resulted in 7 new trailheads and 77 miles of new trails for hiking, biking, horseback riding, birding and other wildlife watching.

Horseback riders enjoying Sonoran Desert Open spaces. Photo courtesy of arizonaadventures.org and Take a Hike Arizona.

Horseback riders enjoying Sonoran Desert open spaces. Photo courtesy of arizonaexperience.org and Take a Hike Arizona.

 

The Pima County ranch properties and other open space lands are intermixed with or surrounded by Arizona State Trust lands, federal public lands and/or private lands. The lands are managed by the respective owners and Pima County respects their rules and regulations. In most cases, Pima County only has grazing leases over the non-county state or federal lands within an identified ranch boundary.

Access maps to County managed ranches can be found here. (Return to top)

What organizations are supporting the passage of Proposition 430?

The campaign, Yes on Pima County Bonds, has a comprehensive list of over 50 organizations endorsing Proposition 430. This ranges from environmental groups, neighborhood groups, business and trade interests, community advocacy groups, tourism organizations and more. (Return to top)

A diverse group of community members showing their support for the bond propositions at a press conference in August 2015.

A diverse group of community members showing their support for the bond propositions at a press conference in August 2015.

 

FINANCING THE 2015 OPEN SPACE BOND

Does the purchase of open space land mean that the County loses property taxes from these lands? Does this increase the burden on taxpayers somehow?

Three-quarters of the land identified for purchase is held in trust by the State Land Department and pays no county taxes.  Additionally, for private lands purchased, the impact to Pima County’s property tax revenues and the property tax revenues of school districts in the County has been found to be barely measureable, partially due to the fact that agricultural lands are assessed at such a low value. Conversely, many builders and developers have found that consumers are willing to pay a premium for homes that are adjacent or in close proximity to protected natural areas – a value-added amenity passed on to homeowners at resale (Source: Pima County Prop 430 FAQ).

According to Pima County, “If all seven of the propositions are approved by voters, it is estimated the property tax increase for a homeowner who owns a home valued at $152,511, which is the average valued home in Pima County, would be $1.46 a month.” This means that for the Open Space Bond, the property tax increase for the average valued home in Pima County would be just $0.17 a month, or about $2 per year. (Return to top)

How is a bond levied and paid for?

According to Pima County, “General obligation bonds are a common form of financing used by cities, towns, counties, school districts and other local governments. These governments sell bonds to investors and use the revenue to fund capital improvement projects, like libraries, parks and other public facilities. General obligation bonds are attractive to investors because the interest earned is typically tax-exempt.  In the case of Pima County, the County then levies an annual property tax to repay the bonds.  The County also varies the amount of bonds sold each year in order to prevent property taxes from varying considerably from one year to another.” (Source: Pima County Bond Election FAQ(Return to top)

Additional Resources

Pima County 2015 Bond Election Information
http://webcms.pima.gov/cms/One.aspx?pageId=195314

Yes on Pima County Bonds
http://www.yesonpimacountybonds.com/

Pima County 2015 Bond Election FAQ Page
http://webcms.pima.gov/cms/One.aspx?pageId=195314

Pima County Prop 430 FAQ Page
http://webcms.pima.gov/UserFiles/Servers/Server_6/File/Government/Bonds/2015%20Bond%20

Election/Maps/1995%20open%20space%20bonds%20FAQ%20and%20map%20V6%20RTP8.pdf

Detailed Report on Property Tax Revenue & Tax Base Impacts of Pima County Open Space Acquisitions
http://www.pima.gov/cmo/sdcp/reports/d52/Open_Space.pdf

Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan
http://webcms.pima.gov/government/sustainability_and_conservation/conservation_science/

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List of 1997 and 2004 Conservation Properties
http://www.pima.gov/cmo/admin/reports/ConservationReport/PDF/Chapters/Appendix%20i.pdf

Economic Benefits of Open Space Fact Sheet
https://www.tucsonaz.gov/files/integrated-planning/1029_openspace_fact_sheet-3.pdf

Health, Well-Being and Open Space Literature Review
http://www.openspace.eca.ed.ac.uk/pdf/healthwellbeing.pdf

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