Saving Gold Canyon’s Dinosaur Park from Extinction

AJUSD, A.D.O.B.E., Pinal County, City of Apache Junction revive the spirit of cooperation that created Gold Canyon’s only community park

By Dana Trumbull

Dinosaurs are extinct. But after the Association for the Development of a Better Environment (A.D.O.B.E.) presentation at the Apache Junction Unified School District Governing Board meeting on January 24, 2018, it seems likely that the Board – and lawyers representing the school district, Pinal County and A.D.O.B.E. – will find a way to preserve Dinosaur Park from the same fate.

For the past decade, state funding for public education has dropped drastically. Financial support for capital needs is now paid out at 15% of the mandated formula. In November, 2016, the community approved the sale of real property by the school district, with proceeds earmarked for capital needs. In September, 2017, the AJUSD Board voted to sell Gold Canyon Elementary School (no longer used for education, the campus is now leased to the Gold Canyon Community Church) in an effort to raise capital for critical repairs and buses for the aging AJUSD fleet. The park, Gold Canyon’s only community park, is located on the northwest corner of the school campus.

At the January 24 Governing Board meeting, A.D.O.B.E. representative John Enright responded to the potential sale with a lengthy presentation that recalled the history of the park from conception to completion and continued maintenance and improvement. Gold Canyon community members decided in 1998 that a community park should be a top priority. In 2000, then Gold Canyon Elementary School Principal Brenda Farris suggested that a small strip of unused land on the northwest edge of the school campus could be used for the project. In 2001, design and planning for the park began. “The budget for the park was roughly $200,000,” explained Enright. “It was an impossible figure for our small community, but the impossible was no match for the drive and determination of the parks committee.”

Enright related a story that exemplified the level of community cooperation and commitment that went into the effort. “Empire Equipment donated the equipment and the manpower to level the ground for the parking lot and grade it. Ace Asphalt donated the asphalt for it. The city of Apache Junction donated the equipment to lay the asphalt. Another company put in a thousand feet of curbing. Wal-Mart donated the handicap strips. Do we have receipts for all of that? No. But we have a paved parking lot worth $20,000.” Through individual fundraising, business and corporate donations and lots of volunteer hours, as well as corporate donations of equipment and volunteer hours by employees, Dinosaur Park opened to the public in 2003.

Although responsibility for the care of the park has shifted several times since then, Gold Canyon community members have always carried the weight of the labor to maintain the park. In 2010, A.D.O.B.E. officially accepted responsibility for care and maintenance. “Between 2010 and today, A.D.O.B.E. has spent over $12,000 and more than 2,500 man hours on park maintenance and improvements,” shared Enright. “This does not include the donation of time and labor of our corporate sponsors.”

Enright continued, “You have a moral obligation to the taxpayers to get the best value for that land. I totally agree with that. The park was paid for by residents of the community for use by their children. And I can think of no greater value for the land than as a community park.”

At issue are the legalities of a land transfer that would separate the park from the sale of the school building and grounds, allowing the park to become a permanent fixture. By law, government entities cannot simply give away public assets; however, possible exceptions include deeding the parcel to another government entity such as Pinal County or to a non-profit such as A.D.O.B.E. Another possibility could be creating an “easement in perpetuity” that would continue after the sale of the property.

According to district counsel Curtis Chipman, who also spoke during the Board meeting, “Certainly the district has the authority to convey the property. The issue that comes up in this context is that the district has to operate within the parameters of the statutes that are applicable to school districts. That’s not always the same as the city or the county. So when [the Governing Board] makes a decision, it has to look at a variety of factors.”

County Supervisor Todd House, who was also in attendance, expressed the county’s willingness and ability to take over the park, “We have several ‘legacy parks’ in the county already. We have the ability to take care of that, no problem at all.”

Past Pinal County Supervisor Sandy Smith, Apache Junction Mayor Jeff Serdy, A.D.O.B.E. President Glen Walp, A.D.O.B.E. Treasurer Bob Harris and one of the original park committee members Marta St. James, all spoke in favor of maintaining Dinosaur Park.

In a follow up interview, AJUSD Superintendent Dr. Krista Anderson stated, “We know that this is a concern with A.D.O.B.E.; we want to help alleviate that concern. We have moved forward with Land Advisors, who was awarded the contract to market the property; however, at this point, the school has not officially gone on the market because of some of these ongoing conversations [with A.D.O.B.E. and Gold Canyon community members].

“I thought they did a great job on Tuesday and gave a lot of information that I was not aware of; even some of the individuals who have been a part of this district for decades didn’t know the history. I think that helped clarify some pieces. We want to do our due diligence from our side so we do what is legal and what is right. But we are a community. We need to support our community.”

When asked about a rumor that a developer has expressed interest in building condos and townhomes on the school site and specifically want the park included due to the value of the views, Anderson replied, “We have not heard that at all.”

Governing Board President Jodi Ehrlich also commented after the meeting, “The sense of individuals coming together representing different organizations, municipalities and government entities to try and find a workable, legal solution for our community was really a great feeling. It gives me great hope for our future.”

Board member Christa Rizzi echoed her sentiments, “Clearly this well used and beloved community park must be saved. After listening to the school district’s attorney speak in the public meeting, I feel confident that we will be able to come up with a win-win solution for both the community and the school district. We just need to get our legal guys together and work this out.”

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