Prop 119: Public lands ballot measure returns, with support - East Valley Tribune: Politics

Prop 119: Public lands ballot measure returns, with support

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Posted: Saturday, September 15, 2012 2:45 pm

Seven times now, voters have rejected ballot measures to give the state the power to trade away public lands.

But Sen. John Nelson, R-Litchfield Park, thinks the eighth time is a charm, if for no other reason than this one is different than the last seven. And he thinks that lawmakers have addressed all the concerns that sent the others down to defeat.

It appears to be the case.

Proposition 119 has no organized opposition. In fact, it has the active support of several environmental groups -- groups who rallied voters to kill several of the earlier versions.

And what may be more important, Nelson said proponents actually plan to raise money to wage a campaign.

At the heart of the issue is that when Arizona became a state, the federal government gave it close to 11 million of acres of land to be held in trust. The proceeds from the sale or lease of the property, or from selling timber or mineral rights, is largely earmarked for public schools.

About 9.3 million acres remain.

Only thing is, the Arizona Constitution says lands can be sold only to the highest bidder.

Proposition 119 would create an exception for land swaps.

The need, said Nelson, is to preserve open space around military bases.

What that would mean is the state could make deals with developers who own large tracts of land around the bases. The developers would get other parcels of state-owned land elsewhere on which they could plan communities; the state, as the new owner of the land, would be able to preclude the kind of high-density residential development that can lead to the military deciding to move operations elsewhere -- like out of state.

There have been many prior versions. Most were defeated amid concerns by conservation groups that savvy developers would find a way to take advantage of such a system, acquiring choice parcels of land, perhaps environmentally sensitive, without public oversight.

And Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, said voters should be skeptical of land swaps.

“There are lots of examples of how the public has been ripped off,” she said, as other levels of government, not subject to the constitutional restrictions, have traded away choice pieces of property for something worth far less.

But this measure, Bahr said, is different.

“The bottom line is the voters have the last say on these land exchanges,” she said. “This isn't open-ended, broad authority for the state Land Department to go out and do a deal.”

Bahr said what will happen is the state will come up with a proposal. But that will require public hearings, appraisals and an analysis of the costs and benefits

Then the plan would go to the Legislature. And if lawmakers approve, the voters will get the last word.

What also has brought the environmental groups on board is the belief that while the land exchanges are focused on preserving space around military bases, there could be conservation benefits.

“Some examples could be state lands down around the San Pedro (River) and Fort Huachuca,” Bahr said.

“That alone is enough to vote 'yes' on this because the San Pedro is a critically important river from a conservation perspective,” she explained. “And Fort Huachuca is essential to the economy of the Sierra Vista area.”

Bahr's organization actually had signed on in support of a similar version two years ago. The measure came within 10,000 votes of being approved out of about 1.6 million votes cast.

And that was without any sort of campaign.

Nelson said supporters won't make that mistake again, saying that there will be “more collaboration between the environmental community and those of us on the military side” to ensure that there are funds to get out the message.

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