Milhaven: Desert Discovery vote could carry unintended consequences

At this week’s city council meeting, we got a brief progress update on a proposal for an educational visitors center in the Preserve.

As I imagine the project, I draw parallels to my visits to state and national parks. They provide opportunities to experience, learn and celebrate the land. I hope we can do the same in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

Linda Milhaven

I urge everyone to wait for the final recommendation and caution folks that any current discussion of the details is just speculation or may be drawing on previously rejected plans. The final details about size, cost and uses will be delivered at the end of July and significant public outreach and discussion will follow.

There is, however, a small group that has already made up their minds. They don’t need the facts or the details. They just don’t want it.

These opponents call for a public vote on the project. On the surface, it may seem like a reasonable solution but there are many different suggestions of what the vote might entail.

Some suggestions are vaguely worded. Other suggestions have more far reaching consequences than may be immediately evident. Some may not accomplish the goal of either approving or stopping the project. Here are a few examples.

There is a petition being circulated that, if approved by voters, would “prohibit construction of any facilities or any type in the Preserve.”

If approved, the proposed language would require a public vote on projects like the new trailhead being designed for Pima and Dynamite or the current project to add restrooms and drinking fountains to existing trailheads at Fraesfield and Granite Mountain.

This is not a practical means to provide quality services to citizens.

Others suggest simply asking if we can build the center in the Preserve. We would need a very specific description of what it is so folks know what they are voting on. But then, what if we changed the name? But then, how much could the project be changed to be considered a different project? Or the same project?

We need to be clear about what we are asking.

Another suggestion is to ask voters to approve using Preserve tax. We have used Preserve tax, without objection, to build what is there now. If we want to consider this question, we need more details. We don’t know yet what it will cost or if we need to use Preserve tax.

Some assert that we must ask voters to remove the Preserve designation if we are going to build on it. We have not changed the designation of any other parcels. I don’t understand why, after all the work to assemble to Preserve, would we want to take land out of the Preserve now.

The idea of a vote sounds simple until we consider all the suggestions and consider their implications. I think we need to be thoughtful and clear about what we ask.

I have heard one suggestion that makes some sense to me.

The current taxes may not be used to support operational expenses of the Preserve. So things like staff time and trailhead maintenance are paid for with sales and property taxes. I would support asking voters if we can use the Preserve tax to support the ongoing operations of the Preserve. It would reduce the future financial burden on the city.

Our Preserve is an amazing place. We hike it, bike it, bird in it, rock climb it, horse back ride it, photograph it, and walk our dogs in it.

We have done an amazing job balancing our ability to experience and enjoy the Preserve with protecting the land. I am confident that we can build an educational center that will build on and enhance our legacy of protecting the desert.

We have a lot of work to do and lots of decision points along the way. I can’t wait to see the final proposal and look forward to the public discussion that will follow.

Editor’s Note: Linda Milhaven is a member of the Scottsdale City Council.

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