Superstition Vistas and the Battle for Smart Growth Communities

By Martin A. Gromulat Superstition Vistas is a nearly 175,000-acre plot of land managed by the Arizona State Land Department (Department). Named for the mountain range that dominates the area, Superstition Vistas is located in the Sun Corridor, an area that stretches from Phoenix to Tucson and is predicted to grow to 15 million inhabitants by 2060. The Department's stated goal is to develop Superstition Vistas as a sustainable community – one that can be the model for future sustainable desert development.

Described on their website as an "Oasis of Opportunity," the Superstition Vistas project area spans 275 square miles of undeveloped land on the eastern edge of Phoenix. Development plans include the Williams Gateway freeway, a regional commuter rail system connecting with downtown Phoenix, single-family homes on small lots, and pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly neighborhoods within reach of stores and businesses. It is estimated that more than 1 million people could reside at Superstition Vistas.

Recent polling by Superstition Vistas Partners found that about 80 percent of those residents polled from surrounding Maricopa and Pinal Counties said that it is "very important" to consider quality of life of future generations, and about 72 percent said that the kind of planning and visioning going into Superstition Vistas is "absolutely essential" for the future of Arizona. And a report by Moving AZOne Reality Check states: "Our region would benefit from using [Superstition Vistas project area] as a demonstration project to envision, plan, and test the type of growth we desire for the future of Central Arizona." Moving AZOne Reality Check asked community leaders to articulate a common vision for growth by exploring possibilities for the region’s land use decisions. Some of their recommendations included: create more compact and diverse housing options; grow west, east, and south to strengthen the Sun Corridor mega region; and accommodate a portion of future population growth on state trust lands.

But Superstition Vistas faces challenges in moving beyond just a vision. For one, Arizona law requirements regarding the Department’s ability to auction, plan, and develop the land it manages are the most restrictive among the Western United States. If sustainable communities such as Superstition Vistas are to become a reality in Arizona, then the Department will need to be granted authority to consider long-term economic and sustainable gains over short-term economic ones. According to a Pinal County Supervisor, "Without state trust land reform, we will have sprawling, piecemeal development of Superstition Vistas, and likely a lower return to the key beneficiaries of the state land trust – Arizona schoolchildren."

Superstition Vistas also will need to gain the support of Arizona homebuilder groups and environmental groups such as the Sierra Club – organizations that remain fundamentally opposed to the project.

Facing the inherent challenges of sustainability amidst a politically conservative Arizona landscape, the Superstition Vistas project aims to be a sustainable development model for the 21st century. How they will provide the planning necessary for a large-scale development, guided by sustainability principles, hangs in the balance.

Long-term vision v. short-term interests

According to a 2009 report by Superstition Vistas, Arizona law prohibits the Department from engaging in the following actions: (1) investing funds on master planning; (2) selling land subject to development conditions; and (3) selling land at discounted rates to stimulate economic development for the surrounding area. Arizona’s Enabling Act and Constitution require that state trust lands only be sold or leased to the highest and best bidder at public auction so that land cannot be disposed of for less than the appraised value. Arizona courts have further restricted the disposition of trust lands by prohibiting exchanges of state trust land for non-trust land without public auction. In addition, competitive bidding is required for the sale or lease of trust lands.

These restrictions severely limit the Department’s ability to attain their goal: creating a model for sustainable communities. In creating Superstition Vistas, the Department’s authority to consider only short-term economic gains might diminish other community values and threaten the environment. Superstition Vistas project leaders also find it necessary to enhance the ability of the Department to participate as a partner in the development of the community, reallocate land values, and participate in alternative methods of infrastructure financing. Although trust land must be disposed of at full market value, there is some flexibility in getting there. In implementing concepts of sustainability and other community values, the methods of trust management and revenue generation will need to change.

As a general principle, state trust land exists in perpetuity and must be preserved for future generations. Thus, the Department’s obligations extend not just to current beneficiaries but to future generations as well. The Department’s mission conveys both of these obligations on their website: "To manage State Trust lands and resources to enhance value and optimize economic return for the Trust beneficiaries, consistent with sound stewardship, conservation, and business management principles supporting socioeconomic goals for citizens here today and generations to come.  To manage and provide support for resource conservation programs for the well-being of the public and the State's natural environment."

In fact, Arizona’s 1998 Growing Smarter legislation requires the Department to consider various factors and public values that extend beyond the present economic interests of trust beneficiaries. Due to the perpetual nature of trust lands, the Department may need to meet not only the current financial objectives of a transaction but also to consider a variety of other values, such as sustainability principles. Regarding reform, the Department endorsed Proposition 110, which the public voted on in the Nov. 2 election. The measure failed to pass by less than 1 percent. If Proposition 110 had passed, it would have allowed voter-approved exchanges of state trust land after public notice and hearing if the exchange is related to land management purposes. Its passage would have been a step forward for Superstition Vistas.

The Department has taken the position that it already possesses some of the authority to at least initially move forward on Superstition Vistas through the use of planning permits and participation contracts. However, the Superstition Vistas Scenario Report states that additional legislation or amendments to existing legislation are necessary to give the Department the authority it needs to properly develop Superstition Vistas in a sustainable manner. For example, the Department should be vested with the authority to enter into joint venture agreements, where landowners and project developers partner. This partnership agreement allows both developer and landowner to share the risks and receive a share of the profits. This type of agreement also allows landowners to receive higher returns than they would receive if the land were simply sold outright because they can share in the significant increases in market value that occur when lands are developed and supplied with necessary infrastructure to optimize market demand. These participation contracts limit capital investments, risks, and carrying costs to developers, allowing for larger master-planned developments on state trust lands. Additionally, these large-scale, single-owner, master-planned developments can more easily integrate smart growth strategies and sustainability planning.

More challenges on the road ahead

Gaining the support of environmental groups poses another challenge for Superstition Vistas. Rather than outward growth, environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, argue that more infill projects are needed. The concept of smart growth often is viewed as just another avenue for urban sprawl.

"This is just about selling more houses. That's all. It's the same old pattern of developing sprawl," said Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, in a 2009 article in High Country News.

Biologist Ken Sweat agrees that a new development project such as Superstition Vistas in an undeveloped section of the desert is less than sustainable. "If our civilization is to ever embrace sustainability, it would seem prudent to begin now," he said. "And the best way to do so is to preserve what natural spaces are left, and plan better to use the landscapes we have transformed in the past to help meet the needs of the future."

On the other end of the spectrum, the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona also opposes the Superstition Vistas project. Despite the fact that the association says it is open to discussing reform efforts, it also states in a 2009 Legislative Report that it "will continue to oppose any measure that shortchanges the trust and unfairly burdens new growth to pay for the conservation efforts."

Local citizens and community leaders have expressed their support for the stated goals of Superstition Vistas: to create sustainable development on state trust lands. Even if a sustainable development project such as Superstition Vistas gains the support of the organizations that are currently opposed to its development, it still will require greater flexibility and a higher level of investment from the Arizona State Land Department.

About the author: Martin A. Gromulat is an attorney focusing on land conservation and sustainability policy, as well as a graduate student at Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, specializing in Environmental Planning.