SECOND LAWSUIT FILED AGAINST ORO VALLEY - Tucson Local Media: Import

SECOND LAWSUIT FILED AGAINST ORO VALLEY

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Posted: Tuesday, September 11, 2001 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:46 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

If there's someone out there who hasn't a bone to pick with some aspect of plans for development in Rancho Vistoso now being being hashed out before the Oro Valley Town Council, they have yet to make their presence known.

Vistoso Partners is unhappy about the timing of considerations being sought by the town to get their development plans approved.

Citizens for Open Government members are unhappy that the council seems to be playing games with them as they try to get the development question put before voters.

And the town council remains unhappy about its inability to bring about a compromise that would get everyone off its back.

The general unhappiness has been a breeding ground for lawsuits and frustration over an issue that seems to have baffled the council and divided the town for at least the past three years, with the treasured Honey Bee Canyon always in the background as a silent, but major force.

In the latest expression of this unhappiness, Citizens for Open Government filed its second lawsuit against the town Aug. 31, contending it was improper for the town to refuse to accept petitions circulated by the group seeking a referendum vote on Vistoso Partners' plans for development in Neighborhood 11 of Rancho Vistoso and to refuse to send those petitions, signed by 847 supporters, to Pima County officials for verification.

The group needed only 525 signatures to have the referendum held, but the town rejected the petitions saying there was no measure to vote on.

The petitions are being held by the Town Clerk's Office until a final determination is reached regarding Neighborhood 11.

On July 18, the council voted to approve an amendment to the town's General Plan that would have advanced Vistoso Partners' objective of building 89 homes on 60 acres of what is now zoned as open space and low density residential development in Neighborhood 11.

Two weeks later, however, the council backed off and voted to reconsider that decision. The town's stance is that since the action was reconsidered, no action was ever taken, and since no action was taken there is no justification for a referendum on Neighborhood 11 and no need to forward petitions to the county.

At the same time, the council voted unanimously to withdraw its July 18 approval of an amendment to the General Plan that would have advanced Vistoso Partners' plan to build 116 single-family homes and 88 casitas on 360 acres in Neighborhood 12.

The town council will vote on both the Neighborhood 11 and Neighborhood 12 General Plan amendments again at its Sept. 19 meeting.

Hector Conde, chairman of Citizens for Open Government, says he believes the town council is just playing games to eliminate having a referendum on Neighborhood 11 because the council's pride was damaged by his group's opposition.

"Hurt our pride? That's ludicrous. There's already one referendum out there, why would our pride be hurt by another," especially in light of Oro Valley's referendum history, responded Councilmember Bart Rochman.

"Our action was taken in good conscience in behalf of all the citizens of Oro Valley," Rochman said, pointing out as well that he had asked for the reconsideration because he didn't expect any council action that night based on the council's commitment to hold a study session beforehand and the fact that the vote approving the General Plan amendment ran contrary to the town manager's recommendation.

Conde says one of his major fears is that by using reconsideration as a tactic to erase a council action, the council could virtually eliminate any right of the public to a referendum by requiring new signatures on petitions anytime a subsequent action is taken to reconsider a controversial vote.

Rochman said there are always fears of an action being repeated but he's convinced that's not the case in this situation.

Members of the Oro Valley Neighborhood Coalition argue that if the council were to simply revert back to its July 18 vote in favor of a General Plan amendment it could be seen as a clear attempt by the council to subvert the referendum process and lead to another lawsuit.

A major change from the council's July 18 decision would force Citizens for Open Government to reinitiate the petition-gathering process to put the matter before voters.

Town planners have been hung up by the council's attempts, as it explores additional land trades and the financial benefits development would provide to the town, to tie approval of a General Plan amendment for Neighborhood 11 to a subsequent approval of a Planned Area Development proposal that would hinge on Vistoso Partners fulfilling a number of considerations.

Those considerations would include:

Commitments by Vistoso Partners to purchase approximately 125 acres owned by ITC Corp. north of Neighborhood 12 and to dedicate the property, as well as about 69 acres Vistoso Partners owns in Neighborhood 11, to the town to be preserved as open space.

Commitments from Vistoso to provide funds for and construct a trail system starting from a two-acre trailhead near the southwest portion of Neighborhood 11 and connecting, via northern Honey Bee Wash, to Honey Bee Canyon Park.

Open space wildlife corridors at least 300 feet wide along riparian areas unless mitigation measures are taken or existing conditions exist to buffer the areas from the effects of development. Vistoso says its plans already call for 450 foot-wide corridors.

At a Sept. 4 study session, the council reviewed once again Vistoso's plans for the two neigborhoods.

Dick Maes, Vistoso general manager, said that while the review to a large extent was really unnecessary from his point of view, he could understand the council's desire for more information and updated documentation to confirm what Vistoso is doing.

Maes said his greatest disappointment at that meeting was that more of Vistoso's opponents didn't take the time to look at the array of maps and plans presented for their benefit as well as the council's.

"Key opponents didn't even look at the materials," Maes said. "I guess for many of them the facts just don't seem to matter."

While stressing that Vistoso has no plans to build in Honey Bee Canyon, Maes acknowledged that he felt there were legal problems in tying considerations to a General Plan since a General Plan is meant to be merely a schematic of intent. Attaching conditions at the time of zoning would be more appropriate, he said.

This is one of the elements the town is trying to iron out before the council's Sept. 19 meeting.

"The whole crux of this is that people think the General Plan is untouchable," Maes said. "The General Plan is not a zoning document, it's a planning document meant to serve as a guideline. People ignore the fact that what we're dealing with here is property that is already zoned."

Rochman acknowledged that an analysis of the economic impact Vistoso Partners' proposals, now being done at the request of Councilmember Dick Johnson, should have been done much earlier, but was probably delayed because some members of the council thought the July 18 action was going to be postponed.

"But still, it should have been done much earlier, there's no question about it," Rochman said.

An earlier suit was filed against the town by Citizens for Open Government after Conde and fellow group members were served with a notice of violation of the town's code for displaying signs in support of their referendum movement for sign code violations.

The suit challenges the constitutionality of the code in light of a decision by U.S. District Judge Wlliam Browning last year in which he declared unconstitutional a portion of Oro Valley's sign code relating to the placement of political signs.

The Citizens for Open Government suit addresses temporary signs.

The town has made no changes to its sign code since the Browning decision.

Earlier this year, Citizens for Open Government collected enough signatures to have Neighborhood 12 issues in Rancho Vistoso previously approved by the town placed before voters in the town's March 12 election.

Those issues involve a preannexation agreement between the town and Vistoso Partners. The agreement required the town to approve the annexation of Neighborhood 12 as well as amendments to the the town's General Plan and Planned Area Development proposals by Dec. 15 to avoid having to pay Vistoso $500,000 for two reservoir sites totaling 1.6 acres to serve the Ritz Carlton Resort and nearby areas. Vistoso is seeking the annexation to build more homes than would be allowed under county zoning.

The March 12 election date made that deadline impossible to meet by postponing any decision on Neighborhood 12 annexation until after the election. Council reconsideration of a General Plan amendment will have no impact on that election.

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