The Urban Lands Act of 1980 and the Growing Smarter legislation, passed in 1998 and 2000, introduced a framework for the “conceptual planning” process for the Arizona State Land Department (ASLD) where the ASLD, typically in conjunction with local jurisdictions where trust land parcels were located, identifies urban state trust lands that are appropriate for incorporation into local government’s general and comprehensive plans. Through this process, a 5-year disposition plan for state trust lands is prepared to identify trust lands that will be master-planned, zoned, and sold during the five-year time period.
The ASLD planning process requires state trust land managers to consider a variety of factors in identifying state trust lands appropriate for conceptual planning. These factors include the following:
- Whether the trust lands in question are adjacent to or adjoin existing developed areas or are within the corporate boundaries of a city or town;
- If the trust lands in question are in an area appropriate for development, will not contribute to urban sprawl or leapfrog development, and where development of the trust lands will be beneficial to the trust overall;
- The consideration of the compatibility of development of the state trust lands with existing developments, uses, and the interests of the local community where the parcel is located;
- Whether the lands in question have the quality and quantity of water needed for urban development;
- The proximity of the land to public facilities and infrastructure as well as the impact that the development of the trust land parcel would have on those facilities;
- The consideration of the natural values of the trust lands in question, including floodplains, wildlife habitat, geology, historic and archaeological resources.
- And, consideration of the impacts related to the timing of development, impact on existing leases and resources available to the ASLD for planning activities for the parcel.
Additionally, the State Land Commissioner is also required to consider market demand, transportation infrastructure, and the availability of development infrastructure prior to the inclusion of any state trust land parcel in the 5-year disposition plan.
Over the past decade, the ASLD has developed a detailed ranking system of the state trust lands in their portfolio in order to meet these planning requirements. The system is a GIS-based tool that compiles information about land valuation, available infrastructure, and the physical attributes of the parcel, which are used to evaluate the relative development suitability of state trust lands. Through this tool, trust land parcels are ranked, and the highest suitability trust lands are evaluated further based on market analyses and other criteria.
The process has enabled the ASLD to optimize revenue generation by focusing their limited staffing and resource capacity for disposition planning on those lands that have the highest market value for sales and that could be most easily developed. Thus, while the total amount of trust lands sold has remained steady at only a few thousand acres per year, the ASLD has been able to make record-breaking sales by targeting the most valuable lands.
This process for identifying the highest value state trust land parcels for sale and the criteria applied, as well as the broader context of identifying and managing trust lands that are important for watershed services for those values, raises the question of how high the state trust land parcels in the Verde River watershed rank in ASLD’s process. While the priorities of local Verde watershed communities for developing state trust lands within their jurisdictions has been expressed through their general plans, it is unclear whether any of those lands would receive a sufficiently high suitability ranking to land on a 5-year disposition plan for the ASLD, or whether those parcels would be able to bring in the market value that urban metro area developable lands would bring.
Given the stock of state trust lands in the fastest growing counties of Arizona, estimated at over 1 million acres just in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal Counties, and with the rate of sale under best case circumstances at between 2,000 and 3,000 acres per year, it may take decades for the ASLD to work its way through the disposition planning process for its highest value portfolio of urban lands.
The question then remains whether the ASLD would see value in affirmatively identifying lands that have significant watershed values for long term retention by the trust, effectively removing them from consideration for sale and development. Such an action could be defensible if maintaining the natural values of those lands enhanced or supported higher priority developable state trust lands for those uses. For example, with the Verde River serving as a significant source of drinking and irrigation water to the Phoenix metro area, protection of watershed services for the Verde could plausibly protect the development value of downstream parcels near the metro area.