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As tax expiration is on horizon, Scottsdale City Council ponders future of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve

Vice Mayor Tom Durham told the Arizona Digital Free Press he believes the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is “the crown jewel of the community,” and says he believes his colleagues agree.
(Photos: Arianna Grainey/

Citizen advisory group vote coming to City Hall Tuesday, July 7

By Terrance Thornton | Digital Free Press

The McDowell Sonoran Preserve is more than a piece of land found in and around the north Scottsdale landscape — it is a point of pride for those who call the municipality home.

The preserve encompasses 30,500 acres and is a permanently protected, sustainable desert habitat that is the largest urban park in the United States. Those lands, however, purchased through an affirmative vote of a sales tax increase that is set to expire, still need care and attention.

Now city leaders are looking for guidance on what do next as the voter-approved 0.2% sales tax is set to sunset June 30, 2025.

Scottsdale Vice Mayor Tom Durham says he and long with his colleagues all agree the McDowell Sonoran Preserve is the “crown jewel” of the community.

“The No. 1 thing citizens should know about this process is that the preserve is the crown jewel of Scottsdale,” he told the Arizona Digital Free Press. “The council will do everything possible to protect and maintain the preserve for generations to come.”

Scottsdale City Council Tuesday, July 7, at City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd., will set formal direction for the nine-member citizen task force to begin deliberations on what recommendations should be provided to City Council for consideration leading up to the .2% sales tax expiration date.

An important distinction of the .2% sales tax? The voter-approved sales tax is set by ordinance for acquisitions of land for preservation only.

Vice Mayor Durham points out those who participate on the advisory task force ought to live and breathe the preserve.

“The advisory group needs to include a broad cross-section of the community, including those who frequent the preserve and parks,” he said. “Some have said we need financial expertise, but I believe city staff can supply most of the expertise we will need.”

Amid early deliberations, Vice Mayor Durham says, costs are ongoing at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and will remain in perpetuity.

“We should consider the needs of the Preserve as we discuss retaining the tax,” he said. “I think most of the council agrees we need a firm source of funding for continued maintenance of the Preserve. And some citizens and council members are concerned about maintenance and upgrades to our parks. We may have money left over from the sales tax, but this is uncertain. So, as we consider retaining the tax, we need to measure these needs against the revenues of the tax. Of course, in the end, the voters will have the final say.”

Panoramic view from the Tom’s Thumb Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. (Photo: Joel Hazelton for Experience Scottsdale/

Process and procedures

David Simmons, who serve as chief of staff at the mayor’s office, offers a rundown of City Council direction provided at the May 17 work study session.

On the structure of the citizen group, there is City Council consensus on:

It will be an Advisory Task Force.
• It will come by City Council resolution.
• There will be a formal application process following the method used with other boards and commissions.
• It will be comprised of Scottsdale residents.
• There will be nine members representing different geographical areas — north, central and south — of the city using the geographical map created for the City Council districting process discussion.
• The members will be confirmed by City Council.
• The task force will follow open meeting law.
• The task force will directly advise the City Council.

Furthermore, Mr. Simmons offers, City Council offered direction on the composition of the citizen advisory group:

• It should be a citizen work group where members selected by staff, could include nonresident stakeholders and board and commission members.
• Include staff members who:

  1. have knowledge of the preserve, including the history and anticipated ongoing maintenance needs and costs;
  2. provide legal advice; and
  3. provide financial analysis and costing information.

• Selection of task force members will be based on qualifications as listed in the application, including experience with parks and recreation, tourism, and the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and conservancy.

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