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Mon, Sept. 23

Open space not a priority for majority of Prescott Council candidates

(This is the fourth in a series of articles on the ballot issues on the City of Prescott's Aug. 25 primary ballot.)

PRESCOTT - For most of the candidates running for Prescott City Council, 2015 is not the time for Prescott to be looking to buy more open space.

Four of the five candidates whose names will appear on the upcoming City Council primary ballot say open space acquisition can wait until Prescott's finances are in better shape.

Only mayoral candidate Dan Fraijo supports the 0.08-percent open space sales-tax hike that voters will decide in the Aug. 25 primary.

"I see open space and economic development as one subject," Fraijo said. "Economic development includes our appeal to tourists."

He compares the situation in Prescott to Phoenix's purchase of mountain preserves in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. "I see the potential here in Prescott also," he said.

Other candidates, however, express various levels of opposition to the tax.

"Not right now," Harry Oberg, the other candidate running for mayor, said of the open space tax. "Right now, with all the taxes we could be facing, we just don't have the money to spend on open space."

Incumbent City Council candidate Jim Lamerson is even more vehement in his opposition. "I would not spend one nickel on open space right now," Lamerson said. "Basic services have to come first."

The 0.08-percent tax is expected to generate about $1 million per year for the next 20 years. The revenue would be split roughly 50-50 between open space acquisition and maintenance of the open land the city already owns.

Information from the city indicates that a number of long-discussed recreational improvements could be accomplished through the revenue.

Among the possibilities: A trail between Willow and Watson lakes, linking the two existing lake-loop trails; continuation of the rails-to-trail (Peavine) trail north toward Chino Valley; a trail section connecting the downtown-area Greenways with the other end of the Peavine Trail; and improvements to the Greenway trails to make them less vulnerable to flooding.

Prescott Recreation Services Director Joe Baynes said his department is working to compile a five-year capital plan that would detail how the money generated from the sales tax might be used.

"It's a work in progress," Baynes said, noting that the plan would be similar to the five-year plan used by the city's public works department.

To come up with the program, Baynes said he is looking to the city's 2008 open space master plan, as well as more recent stakeholder discussions on the issue.

"We're looking at more trail easements from State Land to allow for connectivity," Baynes said, referring to the agreement the city and the Arizona State Land Department reached recently on miles of trail easements near Badger "P" Mountain.

Also, he said, the Greenway Trails along the downtown creeks "could use some improvements" to allow them to better weather flood conditions.

A trail connecting Willow and Watson lakes has long been discussed, and Baynes said it likely would involve numerous parcels. "There are nine to 13 different property owners, depending on which way you go," he said. The city would be looking at a combination of easements and purchases. Baynes estimates the length of the connector trail at "a couple of miles."

The community has also long eyed the abandoned railroad bed that lies north of the current Peavine Trail as a possibility for extending the popular recreational trail.

"One of the big goals is to connect to our neighboring communities," Baynes said. The continuation of the Peavine would be one of the key accomplishments toward that goal.

The project would be "fairly costly," Baynes said, because it would involve crossing Granite Creek, and a sand-and-gravel materials pit in the area.

Prescott's Peavine Trail, which utilized the abandoned Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe railroad right-of-way, opened in the late 1990s, and has grown over the years. In 2011, the city opened its latest addition - a mile-long section that stretches north from Highway 89A to the old wood railroad trestle over Granite Creek, bringing the total length of the trail to about six miles.

The trestle was deemed unsalvageable, and even though the city owns two more miles of right-of-way to the north, the creek and nearby materials pit has served as roadblocks to continuing the trail to the north.

Another piece toward the goal of connectivity is continuation of the Peavine on the south end, linking up to the downtown Greenways Trails.

Along with providing additional recreational opportunities, Baynes said the steps also would improve accessibility for bicyclists who would like to ride to work - whether in Prescott, Prescott Valley, or Chino Valley.

With the revenue from the sales tax, Baynes said, "I think we could make a pretty clean sweep" of the goals.

The 0.08-percent sales tax ballot measure comes at the end of the city's 1-percent streets and open space sales tax, which has been in effect since 2000. The sales tax is scheduled to expire at the end of 2015. (The city is proposing a separate tax for street improvements).

During the past 15 years, Prescott has spent about $16 million on open space purchases, acquiring about 320 acres of open land. Although the city initially proposed using about $40.7 million of the sales tax revenue on open space, the bulk of the money has gone toward street improvements.

Officials estimate that about $166 million in streets/open space sales tax revenue went to street improvements over the same time period.

Follow Cindy Barks on Twitter @Cindy_Barks. Reach her at 928-642-0951.

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