Landmark Tumamoc Hill sold to county

Landmark Tumamoc Hill sold to county
By Erica Meltzer

After more than a decade of false starts, wrong turns and roadblocks, it was over in just a few minutes. Pima County made the winning, and only, bid in a state trust land auction

Monday for 320 acres on Tumamoc Hill and became the owner of the site that once served as the poster child for state trust land reform. The county plans to preserve the site from development in perpetuity.

The small group of local politicians, environmentalists and bureaucrats gathered for the auction in Downtown Tucson broke into nervous laughter and then fierce applause as the auction closed.

Pima County will pay $4.7 million, the appraised value and minimum bid price, with half the money coming from county bond funds and the other half from state matching funds.

"This is a property I’ve desired to not have in our portfolio for a long time," State Land Commissioner Mark Winkleman said. "It’s a shame we’re only doing this because the state of the economy is so dismal. What it really points out is that we need a better tool. We really need state trust land reform back on the agenda."

Tumamoc Hill, just west of Downtown, holds cultural significance going back to Hohokam times and also is the site of the University of Arizona Desert Laboratory’s century-old research plots that provide irreplaceable information about the area’s climate and ecology.

The lab itself, on top of the hill, is not part of the parcel that was sold Monday. The university has a long-term lease on that site. But the 320-acre parcel bordered by West Anklam and North Greasewood roads includes some research plots.

Tumamoc Hill was considered for preservation back in 1995 when it was proposed for inclusion in the Arizona Preserve Initiative. The initiative was ruled unconstitutional after a lawsuit.

Several attempts to pass federal legislation to condemn Tumamoc Hill failed, as did a 2006 constitutional amendment to change the state trust land system.County officials decided to take advantage of the downturn in the real estate market to risk an auction in which the highest bidder would walk away with the property.

Some county officials weren’t sure about going ahead with the auction until two weeks ago, when the City Council agreed the city would take ownership of a 25-acre landfill on the site that was operated by the city in the 1960s.

"It’s a very exciting day, not just for open space and for environmentalists, but for all of our community," said Councilwoman Regina Romero, who represents the West Side.

"This is an important cultural icon for the entire community. We finally did the right thing."Carolyn Campbell, executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, had been nervous about risking an auction.
"I’m pretty excited," Campbell said. "There were people on the edge of their seats up to the last minute. We didn’t know if another bidder would show up."

Campbell said she now believes the time is right for the county to take more calculated risks, especially while state matching funds remain available, but the real need is for state trust land reform. Environmental groups already are planning for a 2010 ballot measure.

"I think we have an opportunity to do more of this, especially in the Tortolita fan," Campbell said. "The county needs to take a cautious approach because every time we do this, it’s a gamble. Tumamoc was probably the safest gamble, but it still was a gamble."

Did you know
Tumamoc Hill was selected for the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Desert Laboratory to study adaptations of plants to aridity in 1903. The saguaro-studded hill overlooked what was then a small university town of 10,000 people. In 1956, the University of Arizona bought the Desert Lab to house the new department of geochronology.
Published: 02.24.2009

Contact reporter Erica Meltzer at 807-7790 or