The Museum of Northern Arizona, working with donors and Coconino County, signed a contract preventing any future development on 36 acres of land it owns north of Flagstaff.
The preserved land is part of an almost 90-acre swath the museum purchased as an investment in 1977, land the museum’s board of directors has been wondering how to monetize since 2017.
There is an informal bike trail frequently used by cyclists on the 90 acres east of Fort Valley and between North Quintana Drive and West Mount Elden Lookout Road.
Bob Gunnarson, chair of the museum's board of directors, said because the land was bought as an investment, they have a responsibility to make money off of it, but they don’t want to see the land developed.
As such, Gunnarson said the board is asking residents to donate money to the museum and the board will then sign a contract with the county preserving the land from development indefinitely.
“The aspiration here is to do two things, to monetize an investment purchased in 1977 but to do it in such a way that it preserves the environment,” board vice-chair Troy Gillenwater said.
The value of the land was assessed at $3 million and Gunnarson said they are hoping to raise that much in order to justify the land's preservation.
The board realizes a donor giving the museum $3 million is unlikely, so they decided to split the 90 acres into five sections, all worth $600,000 and all to be preserved separately.
And now, two of those sections have been paid for by two donors whom Gillenwater said he could not name per their wishes. Gillenwater said he hopes now that they have two of the five sections covered, more donors may be inspired to contribute to preserve the rest.
If they are not able to find donors to preserve all five sections, Kristan Hutchison, director of marketing for the museum, said they may still have to sell off the remaining sections for development.
If that were to occur, the sections of land donors preserved would still be closed for development with only the unpreserved land at risk, Hutchison said, adding they would likely have to reappraise the remaining property as the value will likely have increased.
Currently, the area is zoned for one home per acre and Gunnarson admitted if they broke the land into individual lots and sold it, they would likely generate more than $3 million. And nearly all the surrounding parcels have seen some level of development.
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“We would like to have a return [on the investment], but we would like to preserve the land, so you give up something to get something,” Gunnarson said.
And Hutchison said they want to keep the land undeveloped for a few specific reasons.
For one, she said the area contains a wildlife corridor often used by elk as they travel through the area.
Another reason they would like to keep the land undeveloped is an informal trail that crosses the area. The trail is often used by cyclists and helps connect the trails in and around Dry Lake Hills and Mt. Elden to Flagstaff, said Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott.
Babbott said there have long been connectivity issues between the city and the trail systems north of Flagstaff and in preserving the land, the museum has agreed to an easement along the existing informal trail system that will allow members of the public to legally cross the area.
“There are significant barriers to the connectivity of downtown Flagstaff to the Mt. Elden trail system,” Babbott said. “This provides an opportunity to bridge that disconnect between our urban trail, multi-model system and our public lands.”
“The public for 50 years been trespassing. We would like to give them legal access to the land,” Gunnarson added.
Babbott cautioned that the easement and the land's preservation by no means solves the connectivity issues, but it is one step toward a larger solution.
The money raised from donors, or from selling the remaining sections if it comes to that, will be placed in a quasi-endowment, Gunnarson said. The museum will then use the revenues generated by the endowment rather than simply using the $3 million itself.
Gunnarson said they expect such an endowment should bring in about $250,000 every year for the museum.
The board still needs to decide exactly how those revenues will be used, but Gunnarson said some obvious options may be for maintenance and facilities, general operating costs or revamping the exhibit halls.
“We just redid the Native American Peoples of the Colorado Plateau gallery and it makes the others look a little older, so moving faster through that process would be helpful,” Gunnarson said.