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1:01 AM Thu, Nov. 15th

Preserving nature

Granite Creek cuts through a 28-acre parcel of land that the City of Prescott bought earlier this year in the Granite Dells area. The parcel, which long-time resident Sherman Payne previously owned, is one of five pieces of property the city has approved for purchase since the inception of its open space acquisition program in 2000.

Courier/Cindy Barks

Granite Creek cuts through a 28-acre parcel of land that the City of Prescott bought earlier this year in the Granite Dells area. The parcel, which long-time resident Sherman Payne previously owned, is one of five pieces of property the city has approved for purchase since the inception of its open space acquisition program in 2000. Courier/Cindy Barks

PRESCOTT ­ Yellow leaves drift downward, landing with soft plops in the tranquil flow of Granite Creek.

Towering trees and massive rock formations converge alongside, creating a canopy that muffles the noise of nearby traffic.

Undeniably, it's a pretty spot. City officials point to it as one of the successes of their open space acquisition program.

The creek location is part of a 28-acre parcel that the city bought earlier this year from the Trust for Public Lands, which had purchased the parcel from long-time owner Sherman Payne.

Right in the heart of the Granite Dells, the parcel is a prime example of the type of land the city's Open Space Acquisition Committee is seeking. With the Dells as one of its major focuses, the group is negotiating for other land in the area as well.

Lora Lopas, chair of the city's Open Space Acquisition Committee, noted that while progress sometimes appears slow, the committee is steadily moving forward with its objectives.

"It can be a lengthy process," she said of the sometimes-sensitive talks that go into an open space purchase.

City Councilman Bob Roecker, the council liaison to the Open Space Acquisition Committee, agreed. "It gets a little maddening," he said. "I always say that government's not real life; it takes way too long. There is a little bit of frustration in regards to that."

But both Roecker and Lopas say the committee has plenty of deals in the works.

"We are talking to various people (in the Dells areas)," Lopas said. "There are at least seven land owners that we've talked to."

With its rails-to-trails Peavine Trail running through the Dells and along the east side of Watson Lake, the city aims to achieve more connectivity in the area, Lopas said.

"We've kind of got a little chain (of property) going in that area," she said, adding that future potential purchases could provide easier access to the area.

But the Granite Dells area is just one area that the committee is focusing on. Also this year, the City Council approved a $1.8 million purchase of the 18-acre parcel near Granite Mountain Middle School that previously served as the Prescott Unified School District's Community Nature Center.

That purchase is still in escrow, and officials expect it to close later this month.

With development occurring on vacant land all around the community, open space has been a prominent Prescott issue for years.

In 2000, the issue came to a head when a developer was eyeing the hill east of Thumb Butte for a new subdivision. The project galvanized the community, and the council ultimately put an initiative on the ballot to seek a 10-year extension of the existing 1-percent sales tax to pay for open space acquisitions and further street improvements. An accompanying resolution capped the amount for open space acquisitions at $40.7 million.

Voters approved the initiative, and the 32-acre parcel near Thumb Butte became one of the program's first purchases ­ at a price of $2.1 million ­ in early 2001.

At about the same time, the city secured its first Granite Dells-area parcel, when it paid $325,000 for the 25-acre Ericksson land.

After those two deals, the city had a lapse in its open space purchases until 2004, when it paid $1.5 million for 34 acres on the Watson Lake east shoreline.

The city then went another two years before its two 2006 purchases for the Payne land and the Nature Center parcel.

Several times during the past six years, the City Council has heard appeals from the public to move faster with its open space purchases. And early this year, local open space advocate Meredith Marder sued the city, maintaining that the council had been delinquent in carrying out the wishes of the voters in the 2000 initiative.

Roecker and other City Council members have maintained, however, that they are moving as quickly as they can on open space acquisitions. In order for a purchase to happen, they say, the seller must be willing.

"The fact of the matter is that at our (January) planning session, open space was one of our number-one priorities," Roecker said of the City Council. "And there are funds available right now if something breaks loose."

City Finance Director Mark Woodfill reported that the city currently has about $5.8 million in its open space fund. That includes the $1.8 million that the council committed for the Nature Center land.

Since the inception of the open space acquisition program, the city has spent about $3.8 million, Woodfill added.

Along with the five purchases, an open space summary that the city released recently also lists four open space donations: the Boyle/DeBusk Open Space Preserve, consisting of 9.5 acres with a cabin, with a value of $525,000; the White Spar Creekside Preserve, consisting of 4.5 acres, with a value of $285,000; 2.2 acres of White Spar highway frontage; and 2 acres of various Miller Creek donations.

Contact the reporter at cbarks@prescottaz.com.