OV leaders may buy Oracle frontage - The Explorer: Pima Pinal

OV leaders may buy Oracle frontage

Purchase would help clear way for wildlife crossing construction

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Posted: Tuesday, September 15, 2009 11:00 pm | Updated: 1:29 pm, Mon Apr 18, 2011.

A proposed series of wildlife crossings in the Northwest soon could bridge the gap from concept to reality.

The town of Oro Valley has proposed the shift of $2.5 million in 2004 Pima County bond money, with some of those funds planned to purchase a pair of properties from Treehouse Realty Group, LLC, along Oracle Road north of the town.

The requested transfer of funds would facilitate construction of a wildlife crossing connecting pathways between the Santa Catalina and Tortolita mountains. An Arizona Department of Game and Fish study has identified the section of Oracle Road at Oro Valley's north end as an area of heavy animal traffic as evidenced by the amount of road kill found.

While the wildlife crossing projects could move forward without the land purchase, keeping the properties undeveloped would provide a needed buffer for transient animals.

"It wouldn't make it moot (if the properties weren't purchased), it just would be helpful," said Carolyn Campbell, the executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection.

Campbell, who has helped spearhead the effort to get wildlife crossing structures built, said estimated costs for the properties total about $1.1 million.

The county-owned Catalina Waste Transfer Station stands on the property on the west side of Oracle Road. The other property is directly across Oracle.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry has indicated that he would help facilitate construction of the northernmost crossing structure, which would lead into a 14-square mile tract of desert owned by the Arizona State Land Department. Oro Valley has been involved in talks with the state to annex the area, known as Arroyo Grande.

In a May 28 memo expressing support for the wildlife-crossing proposal, Huckelberry said the county would give up a portion of the transfer station property that lies in the path of the proposed wildlife corridor.

"This could be included in the proposal as an in-kind contribution by Pima County," Huckelberry wrote. That offer would still have to meet with approval from the county board of supervisors.

A pair of smaller wildlife underpasses have been proposed farther south, which would connect Big Wash in Oro Valley with Catalina State Park.

The bond funds that Oro Valley wants transferred originally were slated to purchase a portion of the Kelly Ranch property at Oracle and Tangerine roads, under the auspice of open-space preservation. The estimated cost of that property at the time was $5 million. Pima County and Oro Valley had planned to work with the Arizona State Parks Department to get the needed $2.5 million to complete the purchase.

Since then, however, the property owner told town officials that the asking price for the land has gone up. In a 2006 e-mail to Oro Valley Mayor Paul Loomis and Huckelberry, Oro Valley Town Manager David Andrews wrote that the owner thought $10 million a more accurate value of the property.

In addition, the state parks department has suffered under budget cuts and legislative fund sweeps that would make the possibility of a partnership slim at best.

If the crossing-structure plans go forward, Oro Valley would not pay the construction cost. Rather, that money would come from the voter-approved Regional Transportation Authority, if RTA decision-makers agree. The RTA, a sweeping transportation improvement plan for Pima County, earmarked $45 million for such projects.

The three proposed crossings would cost an estimated $8 million. They would afford transient animal species safe passage between the two mountain ranges, which biologists have identified as vital habitats for numerous species.

If the RTA approves the crossing structures, the plan would likely be coordinated with the Arizona Department of Transportation's ongoing Oracle Road widening project.

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