August 24, 2005 - What started as a plan to improve land that was devastated by flood and fire a few years ago has turned into a contentious issue in one northern Pima County community over exactly how that land should be redeveloped.
And while some county representatives are scratching their heads over the rationale of those who oppose a park on the site, others are saying that the carrying out of the park plan is the next step in the gentrification of the small rural community of Catalina.
When the 2003 Aspen Fire burned in the Santa Catalina Mountains, damaging a large portion of the north side of the mountain range, it cleared the way for what would be major flooding along the Cañada del Oro Wash in Catalina.
After the waters subsided, Pima County provided relief to affected residents by purchasing many of the damaged properties and relocating the owners.
About 180 acres of property was purchased along about two miles of the wash.
The project was a joint effort between the Pima County Department of Transportation and the Flood Control district, with the motivation being to prevent more loss from future flooding of the area.
The county determined that this property should be considered "a regional asset that can be used as open space and for active and passive recreation," according to plans for a regional park to be located there.
The county's original plan was to take the land that was destroyed by the floods and turn the area into a regional park that would offer "a mix of open space, equestrian activity, recreational facilities and future public facilities with a community center for Catalina and Pima County," according to a letter sent out by Pima County Supervisor Ann Day in late 2004 to members of the advisory committee tasked to study the plans and provide feedback.
The park became part of the 2004 Pima County Bond program, which identified many possible features for the park, including baseball and soccer fields, playgrounds, basketball courts, volleyball, picnic facilities, ramadas, restrooms, landscaping, development of natural habitat areas, and corresponding trails and parking. Nearly $2 million was set aside for the project.
According to plans for the park, presented on the county's Web site dedicated to the project, planning for the Catalina Regional Park takes into consideration biological issues of the area, its cultural resources, flood plain conditions and existing land use characteristics. The county began by considering the recreational needs and opportunities that could be accomplished at the site, including passive recreation such as picnic facilities, bike paths, hiking trails, equestrian uses, and natural areas as well as active recreation areas for soccer and baseball, the plans state. The initial plan also included a community complex, which would feature a community center, library, sheriff's substation, clinic, garden and food bank.
When initial plans for the park were unveiled by the county, they were met with strong opposition from people in Catalina, according to Patrick Cavanaugh, executive aid to Supervisor Day. That is one of the reasons the county put together a committee of residents to look at the plans and to provide their input on how the county should proceed with a park.
Feedback provided by residents early in the project indicated that uses such as open space, habitat restoration and even equestrian uses were OK by most, while athletic fields and other highly active uses were not viewed in a favorable light. The county has since revised its plans to exclude sports fields and a community complex no longer appears on concept plans.
"The design was scaled back dramatically," said Cavanaugh, who has taken part in the advisory committee meetings. "We wanted to balance the need for recreation with the desire for it to be left open."
Resident Judith Fishback lives just yards from the site and said she knows every inch of the property thanks to her frequent walks along the wash.
She said many of her neighbors, as well as some of the members of the organization Save Catalina, have been frustrated in recent years by the influx of middle class housing in the area, and believe that the park is being built out of the wishes of people who will populate those types of communities and not for the poorer working-class families who have populated Catalina. Fishback said she and her neighbors have lived happily in the community without a big park, and many, herself included, prefer the natural desert to developed recreational spaces.
Save Catalina, of which Fishback is not a member, was formed a few years ago as an organized opposition to the High Mesa housing development proposed to be built in Catalina, because many people in the community believed the development would impose on their rural lifestyle. The group touts the battle as a success because the zoning for the development was not approved at a high density and the development was never built . Members of Save Catalina have been suspect of the park, which they say has evolved from a small park for the Catalina community proposed in 1997 to a "regional park and community services center." A letter with 52 signatures was sent to the county late last year stating that the group supports preservation of the natural habitat and does not want buildings, parking lots, ball field or levees that will "alter the natural state of the wash."
Fishback said she is not opposed to any park, but would rather the county redevelop the flora and fauna destroyed by the flood and add features that do not intrude upon the natural habitat, such as educational trails.
The county still is accepting feedback on the site and will hold final public open house to present the Catalina park plans is scheduled to be held at 6 p.m. Sept. 7 at the Summer Institute of Linguistics, 16131 West Vernon Drive. The final concept plan is to be presented at that meeting.
Those who cannot attend but would like to provide feedback can do so online at www.pima.gov/pw/crp.