County buys Painted Hills for $8.3 million

Published: Aug. 18, 2014 at 8:54 PM MST|Updated: Sep. 1, 2014 at 11:38 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - In 1997, the voters gave Pima County $6.5 million to buy Painted Hills on West Speedway for open space.

Nearly 290 acres on Tucson's westside, it's a unique parcel with more than 9,000 saguaro and many types of wildlife.

But the owner found a buyer willing to pay more, who in turn found another buyer willing to spend $27 million for the property and develop it.

"At that point, we knew we were out of the game," says Pima Board Chair Sharon Bronson. "We could never afford that."

But the housing market collapsed, the city denied water rights to the property and so the owner decided to eat the loss and sell to the county for $7.5 million plus interest bringing the total to $8.3 million.

"With inflation, we probably bought it for less than the original amount," says Bronson. "I think we saved some dollars and saved a beautiful piece of land."

But the vote from the county board was not unanimous. It was four in favor and one against the purchase.

Voting against it was District 1 Supervisor Ally Miller, who doesn't not think it's money well spent and also complained during the same meeting on a different development issue, "that Pima County has a reputation across the state and nation for blocking development."

Open space preservation has caused a rift at times between the county and development community.

The pygmy owl issue during the 1990's and into the 2000's, which was resolved in court, is a prime example.

But county voters have given the green light to the county for projects like the Painted Hills.

"Voters in Pima County voted for open space bonds and these are open space bonds," says County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. "So we're doing nothing more than fulfilling the wishes of the voters."

Huckelberry says "natural resource preservation enhances values."

Bronson agrees.

"I think the value is it enhances our economic development by providing the open space that we need," she says. "We know that this generation of high tech folks want to see."

The property will be added to the Tucson Mountain Park, the biggest addition to the park in more than a decade.

What makes it even more valuable according the Huckelberry it that it's so close to town.

"Historically, it sets Tucson apart from other urban communities that consume natural resources." he says. "We're preserving them."

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