Developers offering to donate land as an enticement for approval of their housing project have divided the Village of Catalina between neighbors who say the donation will bring much needed social services to the community and those who believe the development will bring a host of problems and destroy the rural character of Catalina forever.
The rift is seen along the winding streets of the unincorporated community north of Oro Valley where hand painted signs have sprung up protesting the High Mesa development, a plan to place about 490 homes in the middle of an existing neighborhood of mostly multi-acre lots and horse properties. In hope of garnering the support of Pima County officials and Catalina neighbors for the project, developers are offering a parcel of land that could be used to build facilities such as a new health clinic, food bank and library for some of the village's chronically under served citizens.
The divisive nature of the plan for developing the almost 190 acres of desert between Mainsail Boulevard and Hawser Street east of Oracle Road has played out before the Pima County Planning and Zoning Commission, which heard arguments from supporters and opponents Oct. 29 and Nov. 25. Both times, the commission put off making a decision in hope that a middle ground could be reached through smaller neighborhood meetings. The commission is expected to take up the matter again at a public hearing scheduled for Feb. 25.
Opponents have mounted a letter-writing campaign to Pima County officials who are considering rezoning the property from one-acre semi-rural lots to densities that could be as high as two to three homes per acre. They've bombarded planners and Pima County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bronson with more than 100 letters of protest and taken their fight into cyberspace with www.savecatalina.com, a Web site where they delve into the developers' back grounds and cite concerns ranging from rising taxes to a falling water table.
"We're not against development in Catalina. Development is inevitable," said Diane Hall, whose home and horses are located adjacent to the proposed development. "We just think the idea of packing houses in like that is wrong. It's too much for the neighborhood to bear. Just about everybody opposed to High Mesa simply wants the zoning left at the one home per acre that it always has been."
The carrot offered by High Mesa's developers Mike Carlier and Chris Sheafe is a parcel of land about 40 acres in size where Pima County could build a community center and library and relocate a sheriff's department substation and health clinic. The parcel would also include Catalina's first full-fledged park which Pima County has included $2 million in funding for in a bond proposal scheduled to go before voters in May, and 15 acres for the state to build a school upon for the Amphitheater Public Schools.
Carlier and Sheafe angered some Catalina residents with a previous development known has Black Horse. The 183-acre, 414-home project similar to High Mesa was approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2001 after the developers cut a deal to pay the Amphitheater district $1,200 for every home built. They're promising the school district a similar deal for High Mesa, with part of the per home cost being paid for by the land donation for the school site.
Carlier admits the proposal is divisive, but says he and his partner should not be faulted for trying to help correct problems they had no hand in creating.
"These problems were created by the wildcat subdivisions that were here long before we came in. We're trying to help solve them by offering a master planned community that will come with the benefits of infrastructure and help the schools and the community. (Sheafe) and I saw there was a clearly evident need when we started looking at this project two years ago," Carlier said.
Carlier estimates he and Sheafe will pay between $2 million and $3 million in terms of impact fees and other fees and donations paid to the county and school district. He said the site plan was revised to include one home per acre parcels on the perimeter of the development where it abuts existing neighborhoods in hope of appeasing the project's critics.
"The people of Catalina want these services and have no problem with the project except for those neighbors that are living within 300 feet of it. It's a 'not in my backyard' thing. But what those people opposed to the project fail to understand is that we can't donate the 40 acre parcel without having the higher density. It just wouldn't be cost effective or realistic," Carlier said.
Members of the Greater Catalina/Golder Ranch Village Council, a quasi-official body that has no governmental powers but makes recommendations to Pima County on issues affecting the Catalina community, have voiced their support for High Mesa at Pima County Planning and Zoning hearings.
The council's chairwoman, Jan Johnson, said the High Mesa proposal is the last and best chance for getting Catalina the services she believes are desperately needed.
"We have no place else in Catalina to do this. There really isn't any other usable land available to centralize these facilities we need," Johnson said. "We were ecstatic when the offer from High Mesa was made … Catalina has never really had much, but now the Board of Supervisors has finally said they consider Catalina as being under-served compared to other communities in Pima County."
Most of the public service facilities in Catalina, such as the existing sheriff's department substation, are lease properties. Johnson said one of the most urgent concerns is the small two-acre property that houses Catalina Community Services, which offers eight different program for low income and elderly residents. The state land lease on the property expires in 2006 and the council has already been warned that the new lease rate may soar up to 300 percent.
Johnson said she was unsure about whether she would be as supportive of the High Mesa development if the land donation for public facilities wasn't attached.
"I think everybody kind of feels the same way. Nobody wants to see change in the community, but realistically, any place there's a big piece of vacant land it will be developed. Where the neighbors are most upset is the density, and I can empathize very much with them," Johnson said.
Opponents say the problems associated with High Mesa outweigh any benefit gained from the land donation. They worry that the construction of the public facilities will boost their property taxes and the additional 1,000 cars that would come with High Mesa would overwhelm the two-lane roads that are already crowded at rush hour.
They also worry that the development will interfere with drainage in an area that saw devastating floods last summer and cut off established equestrian trails.
Sally Hills lives near the proposed development and fears High Mesa will suck neighbors' wells dry and interfere with what she sees as an important wildlife corridor. She disagrees with Johnson's view that the High Mesa land donation is the perfect solution to the community's problems.
"The sheriff's substation and library are already perfectly located near Oracle Road and while its true the services are scattered all over, they could easily be consolidated at the Pima County recreation building on Pinto and Oracle rather then putting everything off the beaten track," Hills said.
Bronson, whose District 3 supervisory district includes Catalina, said the county is committed to insuring the new facilities and infrastructure are constructed concurrently with the High Mesa development to minimize the project's impact.
"The park and sheriff's substation and those types of things are issues that deal with concurrency, where they would be required of any new development there. That's part and parcel of the whole concurrency package and it will be required," Bronson said.
Barbara Strelke, a planning consultant for the High Mesa project, said the developers plan to work with the neighbors and Pima County before the next Planning and Zoning hearing to tailor plans for the donated parcel even more to the community's needs.
"What we submitted to the county about a month ago or so before the last public hearing is probably in the process of changing because we need to work more with the neighbors … we need to regroup with the neighbors and the county's parks department and the school district based on a need to do some redesign. A lot of things are still fluid," Strelke said.
However, for neighbor Dianne Hall, no amount of retooling of the site will mitigate the project's impact on Catalina.
"To me its ironic that they want to promise social services and bring in a middle class neighborhood that won't need the services, and the people that could really use the services will be forced out of Catalina by higher property tax or the destruction of their lifestyle," she said.