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Balancing Growth and Open Space

 Nat White Open Space

For many Northern Arizona residents, talk about building something on their favorite area of open space and you’re bound to get an emotional reaction. Members of Flagstaff’s City Council and the Open Spaces Commission likely already knew this truism, but were recently reminded of it again.

The discussion began when some Flagstaff City Council members began investigating options to pay for a new municipal courthouse building and parking structure. In November 2010, voters defeated a bond proposition to fund the project; the measure would have raised approximately $23 million while maintaining the secondary property tax rate. The municipal courthouse facilities on the corner of Route 66 and Beaver Street are cramped, and some say have become a public safety issue.

Selling city owned land is a possibility for raising funds for the project. Among the parcels in the land sale discussion is a tract at the north end of San Francisco Street near Buffalo Park.

Mayor Jerry Nabours says the Flagstaff City Council should evaluate each parcel of city owned land to decide whether it has a realistic future use or would best serve residents by being sold. “Some properties are fairly easy to decide, an abandoned fire station for example. Some parcels may lend themselves to a sale of a portion of the total parcel. I think the southerly portion of the north San Francisco Street property is appropriate for a sale and the rest may not be,” he explained.

The land should not be considered for sale, according to the more than 30 residents who showed up at last month’s regular Open Spaces Commission meeting. One of the city commissioners, Bruce Fox, told Flagstaff Business News that the commission is in the process of conducting an inventory and analysis of different city-owned parcels. “And that San Francisco property, one of the parcels of land, is one of the pieces that does not have any designated use. It’s not currently open space. There are only a couple of parcels in the city that are designated open space,” said Fox, who just started his fourth year on the commission.

The Open Spaces Commission has no legislative authority; its role is to make recommendations to Council and city staff. After last month’s meeting, the group drafted a letter to the mayor, requesting the Council wait for the commission to complete its inventory and analysis of the city’s available land before deciding whether or not to put any parcels up for sale. The commission has two meetings scheduled this month and a regular meeting in July.

Even before this discussion of selling city-owned land, the commission had been studying maps of Flagstaff, working to determine which areas should be identified as open space. Cultural resources, riparian habitats and wildlife corridors are being given special consideration. The group has another category referred to as places of the heart. “Those special places, where people said, ‘I really like going there.’ And they may not have any particular feature of old growth or riparian habitat, it is just something that has appeal over time,” said Fox. Throughout this process, it has become clear to commission members that there really aren’t too many vacant parcels of land owned by the City of Flagstaff.

And that is a reason to pause, says Nat White. The former city councilman’s perspective comes after 40 years of living in this mountain town. “It’s the decisions that seem to be driven by the immediacy and are lost in the long-term planning, where we tend to go off the wrong track. If it is not an emergency, you want to take your time,” said White, referring to the sale of the San Francisco Street property.

White describes the city 40 years ago, when he would run from west Flagstaff to the east side of town through what seemed like perpetual open space. While watching the city slowly build up, he also saw residents’ vehement reactions to certain developments.  “When the Buffalo Park issue came up, that was a sign to me that Flagstaff really revered their open space.” The Council at that time was searching for an alternate north south traffic route through town; one option would bring traffic over McMillan Mesa, altering the Buffalo Park area. White describes action of Flagstaff residents who gathered referendum signatures and blocked the development by a significant landslide as swift and thorough.

“I think, as the Council back in 1985 found out, this current Council will find out there may be some land to sell but it’s not going to be big money land and it probably is not the best approach for finding money to fund a badly needed courthouse,” said the former councilman. He says there may be creative solutions that have yet to be uncovered.

White says he believes open space within the city contributes to the happiness of residents and provides an attraction and an economic benefit for Flagstaff and its businesses.

Mike Brackin, whose business HomeCo Ace Hardware has been around for 30 years, says he would support selling city-owned land to fund a new courthouse, but only as a last resort. “I think they need to exhaust all other possibilities first.” He adds that if a parcel has value as open space, people who want to preserve the land could find a way to purchase it.

And even though voters said “no” to a bond for a new courthouse in 2010, the question could have more support next time around. Mayor Nabours responded in an email to FBN, saying a smaller bond request could be put to voters in May 2014, with a new courthouse built by summer of 2015. “That would be acceptable,” he said. “Longer than that is not fair to the people that use and work in the courts and have to appear there.” FBN


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