A few well-hidden rural enclaves remain in Oro Valley. For their residents, these areas represent private pastoral islands amid the swelling seas of civilization.
“I can go through this property and ride all the way to Catalina State Park without going on anyone else’s property,” Dale Fox said of his relatively isolated stretch of land stowed away in the town’s bustling center.
Fox, a retired U.S. Department of Agriculture ecologist, bought his house near Palisades and First Avenue in 1992 when the area was unincorporated. Oro Valley annexed his property and the surrounding area in 1994.
His land still boasts enough room for his horse, dog and two pet goats.
“They’re just like a dog or cat,” Fox said of his goats, Judah and Elizabeth. He often opens the gate to their pen to let them roam.
When he bought the house, Fox said he could ride his horse from the property all the way to the Tortolita Mountains and into Pinal County, unobstructed by neighborhoods, shopping centers and golf courses that line the way today.
Now, Fox and his neighbors worry that a requested change to the town’s general plan could hasten the march of earthmovers, further shrinking their rural refuge.
Fox and his neighbors reside in a plot surrounded by a 271-acre stretch of desert owned by Herb Kai, a farmer, businessman and Marana Town Councilman.
Kai wants to the town to allow him to build a larger commercial presence there.
As currently zoned, the property is designated a master-planned community, but only a small northwest portion is marked specifically for commercial development.
“We thought a technology park would be a good use for the land,” Kai said.
Kai’s plans for the property include a clustering of residential development in portions south of Palisades Road, which would surround Fox and his neighbors with new houses and town homes.
The possibility of hundreds of new neighbors, who might not want to share space with horses and other livestock, worries Fox.
“They’re not going to like the dust, they’re not going to like the flies, they’re not going to like the smells,” Fox said. “It’s a culture, you either like it or you don’t.”
The town’s general plan permits 255 houses, each built on one-acre parcels throughout of the property. Protected riparian areas run through portions of the land and cannot be developed, according to town regulations.
Kai wants to build fewer homes, including town homes and condominiums, on fewer acres.
Under his plan, the majority of houses would be built on 59 acres south of Palisades, with the exception of one 4-acre plot north of the road.
The plan also details retail and business park uses in northern and western portions of Kai’s land.
At the western edge of the property, north of Palisades along First Avenue, Kai proposes building retirement and nursing homes.
Land fronting Tangerine Road would be earmarked for retail and technology park ventures.
“I think we’re trying to attract the high-tech businesses that would pay a lot more than a Wal-Mart employee would get,” Kai said.
Town leaders have long been cognizant of Oro Valley’s bedroom community status, with the majority of its workforce traveling to Tucson for work.
Pima Association of Governments data from 2000, the most recent available, shows that more than 10,000 of the town’s 12,335-strong labor force — people 16 years and older — worked in places outside Oro Valley.
In 2007 the town’s civilian labor force grew to 15,376, according to the Arizona Department of Commerce.
Local leaders have long wanted to increase opportunities for high-paying jobs in town. A development like the one Kai proposes might increase the pool of technology-based employers in Oro Valley.
“It’s something that not only lacks in Oro Valley, but lacks in the (Tucson) valley,” said David Welsh, the town’s former economic development coordinator. Welsh works for Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities Inc., which promotes economic development in the Tucson region.
Welsh hears from numerous companies whose interest in the town is fueled in part by Ventana Medical Systems, the town’s largest employer, and the other technology-based firms based in north Oro Valley.
“We definitely see a cluster developing in the area … These aren’t folks that want to do call centers,” Welsh said, referring to the types of employers a technology park might attract.
Kai’s plans to build a technology park ultimately would benefit the community, Welsh suggested.
Yet, Kai’s plan highlights the growing rift between the town’s established communities and developers.
“We’re not saying that we’re anti-growth, we just want it to be considerate,” Fox said.
Kai’s proposal doesn’t take into account enough the concerns of people already living in the area, Fox said. “There’s no justifiable reason to ruin our property values.”
Oro Valley Planning and Zoning Director Sarah More said she’s sensitive to citizens’ concerns about increased traffic and the development’s impact on the environment.
“That’s an important community value,” More said.
Voters in 2005 approved the town’s general plan. Significant changes to it are likely to stir controversy.
Like many in the town, Fox thinks that developers have the twin luxuries of time and a government that sees growth as the key to bringing in tax and construction fee dollars.
“That has been the history of Oro Valley,” Fox said, “if you’re persistent enough, you can get what you want as a developer.”