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Not Buying It: Phoenix’s Save Our Parks Committee Helps Drive Transparent Parks Policy

By Gail LaGrander and Jon Ford

How does a community lose 2+ acres of prized urban parkland without learning about it beforehand? How does a city government follow open meeting laws but fail to connect with affected residents? Easy. The letter of the law gets followed, but not the spirit. Or worse, when you look more closely, maybe the letter of the law wasn’t followed in all aspects either.

Today Phoenicians are in a much better position to help protect, defend and determine the future of urban flatland parks. But not before crucial park acreage was lost, neighbors and stakeholders were organized, and some heavy lifting was accomplished that ultimately helped reshape municipal policy.

In May 2011, Phoenix lost 2.015 acres of critical municipal parkland from Little Canyon Park, impacting a neighborhood with minimal public park and open space amenities. Those key acres that linked a unique trail, the park and the neighborhood were sold to the private, for-profit Grand Canyon University, to realize a $200 million campus expansion plan. A year passed before residents learned about the actual sale, when the university expressed interest in buying the park’s remaining 13.8 acres in April 2012.

News that the entire park could be sold alarmed many residents and stakeholders, triggering a public records search and two key discoveries:

  1. The 2011 sale followed a seemingly “reasonable” process governed by open meeting law: Parks and Recreation Board meeting > Seniors, Families, and Parks City Council Subcommittee meeting > City Council meeting. Still, those affected by the sale knew nothing of it.
  2. The park was established in 1971 with federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) monies, requiring any sale or “conversion” to be filed and approved by the National Parks Service (NPS) via Arizona State Parks.

In other words, there were two problems that required two paths:

  1. Development and Adoption of a “Public Notification for Sales or Disposition of Parkland” policy. Given that no such process currently existed, residents and stakeholders formed the Save Our Parks committee that invested eight months in extensive research, deliberation and negotiation with city of Phoenix Parks and Recreation staff. It was no easy task. The committee drafted, deliberated, re-crafted, shepherded, provided “life-support” and finally gained adoption for the new policy on April 25, 2013.
  2. Analysis of the LWCF Conversion. Here, the Save Our Parks committee mustered legal and policy resources at the municipal, state and federal levels. Ultimately, the legal opinion was reached that the conversion does not comply with LWCF guidelines or requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.  Specific resolutions related to this finding are pending.

Of primary importance in getting to a better solution, the Save Our Parks committee focused on the following key elements:

  • Securing a transparent process.
  • Prioritizing public notification.
  • Affording impacted residents and park users with numerous opportunities (in different locations, formats, and venues) to make their opinions count.

In the end, answers came from within the city itself as much as they did from elsewhere. The committee identified a pre-existing city of Phoenix process with the most thorough and established review mechanisms for land use changes, and applied many of the same elements in the parkland sale policy. The team also turned to the Handbook on the Alienation and Conversion of Municipal Parkland in New York for development of two important checklists, and to many individuals in Arizona and across the nation who provided advice, encouragement, resources, and expressions of solidarity.

As important as anything accomplished, a strong network now connects Phoenix urban park advocates with local and national assets. Urban parks will continue to face challenges as a city like Phoenix evolves, but there now exists a layer of protection provided both by the policy and the network. Should it be activated by a potential buyer or other change, those who value our public parks for their myriad physical, mental, economic, environmental, and social benefits will be ready to act.

For those who believe that they are in a position to benefit from our experience, we welcome any opportunity to reciprocate and offer our support. For more on the Save Our Parks Committee of Phoenix, contact Gail LaGrander at gail.lagrander@slhi.org or 602.385.6509.

Gail LaGrander  is a member of the Save Our Parks committee and the project coordinator for Maryvale on the Move, an initiative to engage community residents in securing policy changes and modifications to the built environment that support access to healthy food and opportunities for active living for all  children and their families.

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