North Marana is dotted with small semi-rural neighborhoods with names like Honea Heights, Berry Acres and Marana Estates. They are tight-knit communities, mostly working-class in character, where people value their neighbors and relative isolation.
But a building boom and a massive demographic shift are in the works. The agricultural fields and scrub desert that surround these older neighborhoods will soon fill with up to 7,000 homes slated to be built in a slew of master planned communities, and life for people like Phyllis Farenga will change forever.
Farenga and her neighbors, who live and work in the 40 or so homes and businesses that comprise Marana Estates located east of the Interstate 10 near the Marana Road interchange, are becoming the first significant test case of how the new and old neighborhoods will be integrated.
And after months of meetings, accompanied by threats of a referendum and the promise of reactivating the Alliance Marana neighborhood coalition that recalled Marana council members in the mid-1990s, the neighbors of Marana Estates may have fought their way into a position of having a say in how their neighborhood will change.
"We're trying to have a say in how our neighborhood develops and the town is trying to take that away from us. They're trying to take away our ability to govern ourselves and we're not going to let that happen," Farenga said. "We're making progress, but we're not home free yet."
The primary conflict is centered not on the 298-acre San Lucas development that will drop up to 800 new homes next to Marana Estates, but rather on a tentative deal between the town of Marana and the owner of a 2.9 acre parcel of land that the town needs for a road project.
Under terms of the deal, Marana would receive a portion of the land which would serve as right of way for a five-lane roadway. The property owner, Andrew Frank, would get his property rezoned for heavy industrial use.
"The property owner gets his zoning, the town gets a free right-of-way and the neighborhood gets treated like chopped liver," Farenga said. "This is putting heavy industry right on top of us."
Farenga says the heavy industrial designation would pave the way for just about any factory or business to be placed cheek-to-jowl with her neighborhood. The town's zoning code cites chemical, soap and drug manufacturing as among the acceptable activities in an HI zone.
Marana Development Services Administrator Jim DeGrood said the HI zoning would give the neighbors more control over businesses that have cropped up in the neighborhood over the years. He notes the neighborhood already contains two well pump companies, a plumbing business, and other operations that have set a precedent for applying the HI zoning.
"HI zoning most closely identified with the existing uses on the property. If we're looking at the existing contractor yards, the well pump business, the plumbing business - the businesses that are out there already- then let's apply appropriate standards," DeGrood said.
While he says the town is trying to look out for the welfare of the neighbors by giving them a zoning that would require buffering and screening of the businesses, he readily admits the importance of the town obtaining the right-of-way from the property owner.
"There is going to be a need for a five-lane road there in the future and if I can get the right-of-way free of charge, I'm going to do so," DeGrood said.
Despite objections and written protests from the Marana Estates neighbors, the Marana Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously approved the initiation of the rezone April 30.
Frank, the property owner, already leases out the land for use as a contractors yard. He said he has no plans to expand any industrial use on the property and doesn't want to do anything the neighbors will object to.
He also points out Marana planners initiated the proposed rezone of the property from its current status as a Transportation Zone.
"The situation is that, originally, I was told by the town of Marana that they were just going to take my land. They would take a portion of my land, about a third it, for this right of way and which I wasn't too happy about," Frank said. "Marana didn't want to pay for the land and it all came up in conversation that it would help me and it would help them. It would make it easier for me to get uses approved in the future."
Former Marana Town Manager Mike Hein, who left the town earlier this month to become an assistant county administrator for Pima County, denies there was any attempt to lean on Frank in order to try and obtain the right of way.
"I recall quite clearly that I told Mr. Frank we were not in the process of condemning his land. I also recall the meeting adjourned with a friendlier atmosphere that when it started and we had agreed to work toward some sort of solution," Hein said.
Robert Zammit, who represents the developers of the San Lucas project, said he was unaware of the plans for the industrial designation.
"I really can't comment because I don't have any details, but I guess at this point I'll start investigating the matter to see what's happening," Zammit said.
The 50-year-old Marana Estates neighborhood has suffered from neglect over the years and the proposed rezone is just another example of the town's lack of concern, Farenga said.
In addition to the "steady creep" of unsightly contractor yards and other small businesses that have proliferated over the last decade, Marana Estates has suffered from water problems that included Marana shutting down the neighborhood well last year because of high nitrate concentrations.
Farenga, who owns a small pest control business run from her home, and other neighbors have complained to the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality about the noxious odors coming from the 50-gallon drums of oil and solvents lining the fences of some of the businesses.
"You smell the oil and chemicals as soon as you walk out of your house," said resident Tom Scott. "Who wants to live like that?"
Neighbors raised repeated concerns about noise and safety after a company that manufactured fireplace logs moved into the neighborhood in 1997. The business, Earth Cycle, caught fire and burned to the ground in December 2001.
Farenga, who served six years on the Marana Planning and Zoning Commission and ran unsuccessfully for council in 1995, said she suspects the HI designation also is intended to cover up the "past sins" of Marana planners allowing businesses like Earth Cycle to proliferate in the neighborhood.
"With the zoning we now have, most of these businesses that have come in over the years should have been approved by the neighbors through a significant land use change process. Neighbors living adjacent to a proposed business should have had veto power from stopping the change, but the town just slipped them in," Farenga said. "Now they're trying to make it HI where we won't even have that authority."
DeGrood said the businesses were allowed in the neighborhood under a clause in the zoning that allows for the placement of new business that are similar in nature to existing businesses.
"We're going by the book on the old zoning codes that exist out there. Changing the zoning would be a step toward getting more contemporary zoning in place that would actually help the neighborhood control these businesses."
Farenga was an active member of the Alliance Marana citizens group that formed in 1994 to fight a New World Homes development near Tangerine and Thornydale roads. The Alliance fought the case to a state appeals court and voters ultimately rejected the development.
The group also led a recall campaign in 1995 against Mayor Ora Mae Harn and Vice Mayor Sharon Price, but voters reelected the two in the recall election.
"We are exploring the idea of referendum in the Marana Estates case, and there has been some feelers put out about resurrecting Alliance Marana. That seems to have got some attention at town hall over the issue. They need to understand we're dead serious about this," Farenga said.
DeGrood said the town remains committed to negotiating with the residents of Marana Estates and other zoning designations for the Frank property being considered.
"We're the applicant and we can withdraw it at anytime. The status now is that we're working with the neighbors to try and find a list of uses acceptable to the neighbors," DeGrood says.
The process may be about to enter a new phase that could cost the town it's free right of way. Frank told the Northwest EXPLORER he was considering telling the town he doesn't want the property rezoned.
"If there's opposition to me getting a heavy industrial zoning, I'm not going to make a big deal out of it because I really could care less," Frank said. "… at this point I may just call the town of Marana and say forget about it. I'll just sell them the land in the future if they need it."