SAHBA CHIEF LEAVES ANOTHER BATTLEFIELD - The Explorer: Import

SAHBA CHIEF LEAVES ANOTHER BATTLEFIELD

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Posted: Tuesday, July 22, 2003 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:47 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

In his 13 years as executive vice president of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association, Alan Lurie has seen the group grow from slightly more than 300 firms in the nadir days of the Resolution Trust Corp. to more than 650 member firms.

In doing so, Lurie, who recently announced his retirement from SAHBA, has played a major role in helping the local homebuilding industry change its strategies in areas ranging from strengthening its economic base to providing for affordable housing against a constant onslaught of environmental criticism.

Lurie said that people used to tell him of the successes local homebuilders once had in getting issues important to the industry passed simply by spending whatever it took and bulldozing their way through the political process.

"The money doesn't count for as much anymore," said Lurie during an interview recently in SAHBA's offices at 2840 N. Country Club Road. "Today it's the personal contacts that count. We continued to see that, as we got into arguments with other organizations and other individuals, we had to be more responsive to the needs of the community than we had been before because the community had much more to say as to what went on.

"I think everything we do now has as its opposition a much more educated and informed group of people, whether it be environmentalists or neighborhood activists or whatever. We have to do our homework and know what we're talking about in order to win the day."

Winning the day is something Lurie knows a good deal about.

Now a retired Air Force brigadier general, the 70-year-old Lurie survived 80 months in Vietnam as a prisoner of war after his F4C Phantom fighter was shot down in 1966. Paraded before angry crowds from village to village at the outset, he survived nearly seven years of torture and long periods of isolation before a cease-fire in 1973 led to freedom for him and hundreds of others.

By the time Lurie retired from the Air Force in 1987 with more than 5,000 hours of flying time, ending a 32-year career, his laurels included the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart and many other medals.

"No matter what other people think about the military, I think highly of it," Lurie said. "It's the discipline that helps a lot, not watching the clock and getting the job done. It's being courteous to people. You don't get down and holler at people and cuss them and expect to do business with them."

In a sense, Lurie, in taking the SAHBA job, merely switched battlefields to one certainly less life-threatening but one that has been almost as challenging in its own right.

"One thing being an Air Force pilot has taught me is teamwork in fulfilling a goal," Lurie said. "With SAHBA I thought our goal was to do the best job we could for the residential construction community within the bounds of being a good neighbor in the community. That's the premise I worked by."

Lurie's major disappointment, he said, was an inability to keep housing as affordable as possible to minimize the number of people who would be disqualified from home ownership.

"I think the thing I couldn't do as well as I wanted was to keep those prices low," he said. "A great deal of that has to do with the increased demand for money communities have, particularly during a time when the federal government has backed out of supporting the industry in the community as much as they had in the past.

"When the federal government says you're not going to get the subsidies you've been getting and the state is out of money, I think communities take the easy way out with the imposition of added costs "such as impact fees, construction fees, permit fees and other assessments, he said.

The problem of finding buildable land in this community if the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan is passed and open space is bought up and taken out of the mix could put an end to affordable housing in the community, he said.

"People who live in desirable areas downtown who can no longer pay their taxes are going to sell their properties at a pretty good rate but have to move out of town because they're not going to be able to replace them," Lurie said. "What they're going to do is race to the outskirts of the community and I imagine a lot of them are going to end up in communities south and east of us and commute to their jobs in Tucson. It won't take long.

"I think last year we had a 15-percent increase in the cost of housing. That isn't because the homebuilders are making money by any means. It's because of the basic, ground-floor reason that housing becomes more expensive because of the cost of land."

To conclude there is anything that would prevent this would be to assume there is going to be more cooperation from government and Lurie doesn't see that happening without a battle.

Last month, the Pima County Board of Supervisors advanced the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan by agreeing to put an open space bond issue before voters next May. No amount was set, but environmentalists had sought a $250 million bond issue for open space alone, a figure that may be hard to sell because of the possibility additional bond revenues might be sought for Kino Community Hospital, the Sheriff's Department, parks and affordable housing.

Lurie estimates a potential redesignation of critical habitat alone could add from $7,000 to $9,000 to the cost of a home.

"That's nothing," Lurie said. "That's just a drop in the bucket. If you think the redesignation of 1.2 million acres as critical habitat isn't going to cost people a lot of money, you don't understand the interrelationship of critical habitat, the recovery plan and the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan in its entirety and the conservation land system, which are all knitted together."

The Eastern Pima County conservation land system, which would require a landowner to leave 80 percent of his land as open space if it's in critical habitat, would cover more than 2 million acres and 3,134 square miles.

"I think what people have to understand is that this whole thing is going to cost them a hell of a lot of money," Lurie said. "What they have to do is arm themselves with information and educate themselves.

"They can say all they want that it's environmental and species protection, but this is a no-growth effort," he said. "This is to stop growth and development in the community.

"I don't know where these people are coming from," Lurie said of opponents who seek to turn Fort Huachuca into an animal preserve. "These are not the type of Americans I grew up with. Their god is mother nature. I've listened to environmentalists saying the only advocates the animal species have is us and I don't care if it hurts humans, the saving of the species is more important," Lurie said. "I don't think that's reasonable."

Lurie is also highly critical of the "instant gratification" approach local governments are taking with impact fees rather than being satisfied with the taxes paid over the time a home is occupied, the revenues taken in from goods and services bought and sold, and new businesses established, especially since the homebuilder builds 95 percent of what is needed to satisfy the construction of that home out of his own pocket.

"I'm not saying there is no profit derived from development," Lurie said. "I'm just saying there isn't as much of a burden as local politicians claim when they say growth doesn't pay its own way.

"We have a policy at SAHBA that says we believe there are costs the growth community should stand in back of and pay," he said. "But we are concerned they be fair and reasonable. … We know what the fair share is and we offer to pay that and everybody thinks we're trying to get away with something."

Even in instances when impact fees are justified, communities are doing very little for their residents by virtue of that money, Lurie said.

The problem could be eased by allowing increased densities in some areas or two-story homes, topics that have always been major efforts of SAHBA for years, Lurie said.

"You hear a lot of lip service from government, but when it comes down to that meeting with the mayor and council or the Board of Supervisors and they have these activists coming out and saying we don't want our community to look like a ghetto or that lot across the street is where little Johnny plays baseball or that's where my husband washes the car and I take the dog out to, then it takes a very solid spine to be a government official.

"If your general plan or comprehensive plan says we can go to this density and multistory homes are authorized and you back away from that because of neighborhood concerns, all you've done is destroyed the yield power of that comprehensive plan because you've gone away from it," Lurie said.

On the other side, Carolyn Campbell, director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, said that while still keeping them at arms length over many issues, Lurie has earned the respect of environmentalists as "a gracious man, always open to meeting folks. That's really helped build relationships in the community."

"I must say Mr. Lurie sincerely believes in what he promotes and so that makes it a little tougher to get through because he believes so strongly about so many of the issues and he has for years," she said.

However, Campbell said, "Mr. Lurie has, more than some, kept SAHBA more in the mindset of the '50s in terms of antiregulation and some of the kinds of reactionary attitudes toward environmental protection and certain regulations, so it hasn't been all positive."

There is still an undercurrent in their newsletter of attacking environmental regulations and any issues related to the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, she said.

More progress has been made with realtors, property rights activists and certain developers, "so it's a little disappointing" that more hasn't been accomplished with SAHBA leadership, she said.

Campbell characterized the progress made by environmentalists in dealing with Lurie and SAHBA as "baby steps," including a somewhat softer stance toward impact fees, but acknowledged more of a recognition during Lurie's tenure that times are changing, despite its court battles over pygmy owl habitat and other issues.

Still, there is great concern that SAHBA will attempt to water down the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan under the leadership of its new executive vice president, Ed Taczanowsky, Campbell said.

On the less controversial side, Lurie points with pride to the creation of a Green Builder group during his tenure that responds to problems homebuyers might have in terms of their hypersensitivity to certain products used in construction and special needs of the handicapped.

Lurie is also proud of the creation of a Builders of the Future program begun by SAHBA at Santa Rita High School several years ago.

In the program, students work with professionals and Habitat for Humanity to build homes for the poor, gathering self-esteem as they improve their skills. For those who won't go on to college, the program offers a valuable link to jobs in the homebuilding industry, Lurie said.

As far as retirement, Lurie said he plans to do "just what he wants to do." That most likely will include flyfishing for trout and salmon in the Northwest and maybe some consultant work as well.

And of course there will be the "honey do" projects from his wife, Mary, he adds.

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