When the state legislature closed up shop last March in the wake of the pandemic — passing only a “skinny” budget, with a 2% increase over the previous year — LD1 Rep. Noel Campbell’s $5 million bill to fund a Granite Dells Regional Parkwent by the wayside, like so many other bills. But while Campbell is not running for reelection, he hasn’t given up on making the park happen.
Like many who live in Prescott, Campbell is attempting to wrangle a way to preserve the iconic area that drew an estimated 800,000 people in 2017 alone for events and recreation, including biking, hiking, kayaking, fishing and picnicking by the unique rock formations and Watson and Willow Lakes. During the pandemic it’s been in constant use by both locals and visitors from the Valley looking to escape the constraints of social distancing by enjoying the outdoors.
“A big push could come after November, in January or sooner,” Campbell said. He plans to discuss how to raise the money to buy Storm Ranch, a key piece of real estate owned by a local family that would be needed to consolidate the regional park. The plan could involve the City of Prescott voting to accept an offer from the state parks department to borrow the money at the low rate of 2%. Or it could involve a
local proposition to do the same.
Stakeholders would include groups that are already working toward preservation, including Save the Dells, the Granite Dells Preservation Foundation, the Citizens Water Advisory Group and other grassroots and special-interest groups. But Rep. Campbell says all of those interested in keeping a sizable park intact have to step up and be counted.
“We need to get the realtors on board, because this is a quality of life issue,” Campbell said. “Also the tourism board, because people come here for the Courthouse and the Dells. Everybody has got to play their part — we can’t do it all.”
Campbell encourages people who are concerned to join Save the Dells to find out what’s going on, and to support and donate to Prescott City Council candidates who are committed to preserving the Granite Dells for future generations.
“Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever,” he said.
Electing three strong pro-preservation candidates will be the key to keeping the Dells from being overrun by development, Campbell said. Next year’s election will be crucial for ensuring that the Granite Dells Regional Park becomes a reality. To put this long battle into perspective, decades of effort by environment advocates and the now-defunct Open Space Alliance led to citizens voting in favor of a 2000 referendum that enacted a 1% sales tax to buy land to preserve the Dells and other areas. Despite public support, the Prescott City Council was resistant to buying land, instead spending the money on road-building and improvements because of a loophole in the referendum language that allowed it. The open-space group filed
a lawsuit against the city in 2006 to force it to use the remaining funds for land purchases. At that time, of the $75 million raised, only $3.6 million was used to buy open space. The group lost the suit.
The city has spent a total of about $20 million on open space, mostly for land around the lakes. In that era the land could have been had at a low price, before developers seized on the potential of building houses on the vacant land in the Dells. Now only a few parcels are potentially available from developers and family trusts.
Meanwhile, after two years of pressure from Save the Dells and ongoing negotiations with the Prescott Council, Arizona Eco Development has pledged 475 of the 500 requested acres for the park, but intends to move forward with constructing at least 2,400 houses in and around the Dells along with a 200-unit resort and commercial, industrial and other buildings. The Planning and Zoning Commission has recommended annexation, and a 60-day comment period is underway. Save the Dells is urging the public to weigh in the
project and voice their views on it.
Campbell has spoken with all the candidates running for the two open seats in the state legislature from this district, encouraging them to support funding for the park. He’s concerned, however, that freshman legislators won’t be ready to fight because they will be too new to their roles.
Regardless, he said it’s more likely that the people who have the most at stake — local businesses who benefit from the tourism the Granite Dells attract — will be crucial to getting the job done, one way or another. “It could be a wonderful state park if we could save the vital components of it,” Campbell said.
Toni Denis is a frequent contributor to 5enses.