Open Space Alliance concludes its two-decade run

End of an era

Longtime Open Space Alliance President Elisabeth Ruffner, left, talks with more recent Alliance President George Sheats, right, about the recent dissolution of the organization. The two met with Prescott Recreation Services Director Joe Baynes Wednesday, May 16, 2018, and talked about the gradual “institutionalization” of the open space movement by the City of Prescott. (Cindy Barks/Courier)

Longtime Open Space Alliance President Elisabeth Ruffner, left, talks with more recent Alliance President George Sheats, right, about the recent dissolution of the organization. The two met with Prescott Recreation Services Director Joe Baynes Wednesday, May 16, 2018, and talked about the gradual “institutionalization” of the open space movement by the City of Prescott. (Cindy Barks/Courier)

Ridgelines were in jeopardy, scenic tracts along Granite Creek were facing development, and trail development was floundering.

Two decades ago, when skirmishes over Prescott’s open lands were common, a group formed with a goal of saving the community’s natural attributes.

The Open Space Alliance, a coalition of about two dozen conservation-minded organizations, sprang up as a clearing house for the region-wide movement.

Since the mid-1990s, the Alliance has been at the forefront of numerous efforts, including saving stretches of the greenways along the creeks, preserving the Granite Dells around the lakes, and protecting the views of promontories.

‘PERFECT ENDING’

Now, as the individual organizations have branched out and succeeded on their own, the Alliance’s efforts have come to an end, say the group’s former leaders.

George Sheats, president of the organization for the past five years or so, recently released a notice that the group would dissolve after the April 2018 Earth Day activities.

This past week, Sheats and Prescott Recreation Services Director Joe Baynes met with longtime Prescott resident and Open Space Alliance founder Elisabeth Ruffner to talk about the start of the movement, and the Alliance’s conclusion.

Sheats pointed out that much of what the Open Space Alliance set out to do has been “institutionalized” by the city over the years.

“We got to the point with the open space where most of it was done by the city,” Sheats said.

The most recent example: The November 2017 purchase and preservation by the city of 160 acres of prime Granite Dells land from the Storm Ranch North.

“It’s a perfect ending,” said Ruffner, now 98, who served as the Alliance’s president for years before stepping down and turning the position over to the Sheats.

Of the goals that the Alliance set back in the mid-1990s, Ruffner added, “I’d say we had 90 percent success and 10 percent failure in all of our dreams. That’s a pretty good record.”

PARALLELS WITH HISTORIC PRESERVATION

While open space preservation and historic preservation might appear to have few similarities at first glance, Ruffner sees plenty of parallels between the ways the two movements – decades apart – progressed in Prescott.

Both started through grassroots efforts, she said, and both ended up being “institutionalized” by city government.

Ruffner was at the helm of both efforts, starting with the 1970s push to save the Bashford House, which ended up leading to the City of Prescott’s historic preservation division. The city-led historic preservation effort was headed for years by Nancy Burgess, and is now headed by Cat Moody. The Preservation Commission helps to guide the program.

The open space effort took a similar path, Ruffner said. She recalls being approached in the mid-1990s by then-City Planning Manager Ramona Mattix about leading a similar effort on preservation of open space.

“Ramona said, ‘We need a nonprofit group to do what the city can’t do,’” Ruffner remembers.

That led to the formation of the Open Space Alliance, which Sheats – the current chairman of the Prescott Planning and Zoning Commission – said was the precursor to city-led efforts such as:

• Open space sections in the city’s general plans.

• Land development code requirements for dedicating open space within Planned Area Developments.

• Engineering standards for bicycle and pedestrian connectivity along rights-of-way.

• Recognition by the City Council and city management that open space and its related amenities benefit economic development, tourism, and quality of life.

Baynes said the existence of the Open Space Alliance was helpful in bringing about those changes. “Obviously, when citizens get involved in a cause they care about, they bring good ideas to the table that help to nudge things along,” he said.

The efforts to save Prescott’s history and its open space have served to preserve the essence of the community, Ruffner maintains.

“Historic buildings and trails are what makes the town,” she says.

ALLIANCE ACCOMPHISHMENTS

The notice that Sheats released earlier this spring lists a number of the Alliance’s accomplishments over the years, including the 2000 sale tax initiative that ended in 2016, and ultimately devoted about $20 million toward open space acquisitions.

“Areas around both Watson and Willow lakes and parcels within the Dells are good examples of where the money has been used to provide recreational amenities while protecting the viewsheds,” the notice added.

Still, the former Alliance members acknowledge that there is still work to be done.

The recent Save the Dells movement shows that the community wants to see more of the Granite Dells preserved, they say.

But Ruffner stressed one major point: “If you don’t own it, you can’t control it.”

Fifty years ago, she said, she and former city recreation director A.C. Williams tried to make the entire Granite Dells area into a state park, but quickly learned that such an effort would be complicated by the multiple owners.

“You don’t always win the battle, but you usually get something out of it,” Ruffner said. “It’s worth the effort.”

Follow Cindy Barks on Twitter @Cindy_Barks. Reach her at 928-445-3333, ext. 2034, or cbarks@prescottaz.com.