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Mountains pose taxing question for Scottsdale : Arizona city schedules special election May 23 on the purchase of rugged peaks. Plan is to head off developers at the pass.


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The McDowell Mountains, stretching for miles along the eastern boundary of this politically conservative community, embrace the heart of Arizona's upper Sonoran Desert. Covered with stately saguaros and desert wildflowers, the rugged peaks have been left virtually untouched by the humans who have flocked to this region in recent years.

But new subdivisions and shopping malls are advancing on the mountains like regiments in full battle armor, and in a few years the pristine range could be covered with expensive homes.

Now, Scottsdale is moving to block the developers in a way that seems consistent with its image of wealth and prosperity.

It wants to buy the mountains. The whole range.

Leading the charge is 59-year-old Mayor Herbert Drinkwater, who takes visitors on horseback rides through the mountains at $1,000 a pop to raise money for the effort.

"I grew up as a kid here in the '40s, climbing the McDowell Mountains with my family," Drinkwater says. "Those are the best memories I have. My kids grew up climbing the McDowell Mountains in the '60s.

"The mountains are there for everyone to enjoy. And if a few people build homes up along the top of the ridge, the mountains can't be enjoyed by everyone. You won't be able to climb them anymore."

The City Council has scheduled a special election for May 23 to ask Scottsdale's 165,000 residents if they are willing to pay an additional two-tenths of 1% sales tax. That would enable the city to purchase about 25.7 square miles--nearly the entire range--over the next 30 years at an estimated cost of $240 million.

So far, the measure has met with limited opposition, although some merchants fear they could lose business on big ticket items to neighboring Phoenix. The tax hike would add $60 to a $30,000 automobile, for example, and the measure would put the Scottsdale sales tax at 1.4%, one-tenth of one percentage point above that of the sprawling metropolis to the west.

Drinkwater scoffs at that concern. The increase would average about $20 a year for a typical Scottsdale family, and nearly half of the sales tax is paid by non-residents, he says.

The issue is seen as pivotal in the growing effort to preserve parts of this unique region before the Sonoran Desert disappears beneath subdivisions. Growth is rampant throughout Maricopa County, which has added 42,000 new homes in the last two years.

Not all of Scottsdale is posh, and much of the support for the movement has come from middle-class neighborhoods. Schoolchildren have raised thousands of dollars through bake sales--largely through the efforts of Christine Kovach, who has worked to get the area's youngsters involved.

"Of every $10 you spend, two pennies are going to go to preserving the quality of life," says Kovach. "That's a pretty small price to pay."

The election will provide the first real evidence of just how seriously the people of the Sonoran Desert feel about saving part of what they came here to enjoy. Environmental groups have sprung up throughout the region, and they have had some success in controlling the density of developments. But the pressure to build here is intense.

"If they vote against it, for such a small amount of money, it means saving the environment is not one of their priorities," Drinkwater says.

Drinkwater and his two children own 10% interest in a 48-acre parcel that lies on the edge of the targeted McDowell Sonoran Reserve, and he has been accused of a conflict of interest. Some see the issue as another program that will benefit the rich by pushing up property values in posh areas like Pinnacle Peak and Desert Mountain, where home prices run into the millions.

Drinkwater has abstained from voting on the issue but the conflict hasn't shut him up.

"Another 10 or 15 years, maybe sooner, those mountains are going to be gone," he says.

Most of the range is in private ownership, and the city learned the hard way a decade ago that it could not simply tell the owners they could not develop the property. The Arizona Supreme Court struck down an ordinance in 1985 that prohibited construction on mountain slopes because the ordinance amounted to unlawful seizure of private property.

"You can't take away people's property without just compensation," Drinkwater says. "That's against the Constitution." So the only way to preserve the mountains, he says, is to buy them.

More than 300 head of mule deer roam the rugged cactus-covered slopes of the McDowell range, and there are an estimated six to eight mountain lions. Other wildlife abounds, including the ever-present coyote and a wide range of reptiles.

Trails lead up to the peaks, and this time of year the slopes are covered with bright yellow brittle bush and purple lupine, painting the desert with the colors of spring. Soon the cholla and the prickly pear will sprout their blossoms, ranging from deep purple to orange. And in the early summer, when the heat of the desert turns the hillsides brown, the majestic saguaro will wear its crown of white flowers.

Saving the mountains, Drinkwater insists, is the most important challenge the city of Scottsdale has ever undertaken.

"Once they are gone, they're gone," he says.

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