For those concerned with the proposed annexation and subsequent development of an expanse of Arizona State Trust Land north of Oro Valley, a new campaign offers a ray of hope.
Representatives with The Nature Conservancy have moved to get an initiative placed on November election ballots that would permanently protect 570,000 acres of undeveloped Arizona State Land Department holdings across the state.
Included within that sum is 6,200 acres of Arroyo Grande, the 9,100 acres Oro Valley and the state have begun negotiating for.
Other parcels in southern Arizona have also pegged for preservation, including the Tortolita Fan near Marana, Catalina State Park adjacent to Oro Valley and Saguaro National Park on Tucson’s west side.
The ballot measure would also foster changes to the state trust by allowing the land department to conserve lands. Current law mandates the land department to derive the greatest value from the lands in its domain, the proceeds of which go to the state school trust.
“We think it’s consistent with the mandate of the State Land Department,” said Tom Collazo of The Nature Conservancy.
At the time of statehood in 1912, the federal government seeded the land department with 12 million acres. The department still holds 9 million acres.
The group needs to gather 230,047 signatures for the measure to get on the ballot.
The initiative, an amendment to the state constitution, would permit local governments to buy land marked for conservation according to the initiative without auction. State land department holdings are normally sold at auction to developers.
Some observers see current system as antithetical to conservation efforts.
“It pits the environment and tourism against education,” Michael Leigh said. “You get either one or the other — education or the environment.”
Leigh, a SaddleBrooke resident, helped start SaddleBrooke Citizens for Wash Protection, a group dedicated to environmental protection of desert riparian areas. He said the group supports the conservation goals of the proposed ballot initiative.
A similar initiative, Proposition 106, was narrowly defeated in 2006.
“This is much more simple, it makes it legal to conserve state trust lands,” Carolyn Campbell said.
Campbell heads the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection. The group has lobbied to have a conservationist facet included in the final land deal. The coalition supports the new initiative.
Since Oro Valley and the Arizona State Land Department have gone public with their intention to negotiate the annexation, concerns about water availability, open space, transportation and wildlife protection have come to light.
At times discussions have been heated. At a January meeting in Oro Valley, citizens expressed skepticism and suspicion about plans for Arroyo Grande.
Many people from Catalina cast doubt on Oro Valley’s commitment to manage growth and its ability to lessen the annexation’s impact on residents.
“In this project, the county is benefiting, Oro Valley is benefiting, the state is benefiting, but the current residents are not,” said Mark Miller, a Catalina resident and president of the village council.
While not an outright opponent of annexation, Miller has concerns about development. A state conceptual plan estimates that the area could support up to 30,000 residents.
Miller worries about increased traffic on Oracle Road.
“No one has made any promises as to how they’re going to mitigate that,” he said.
For now, the Catalina Village Council plans to watch the process closely, and has formed a committee to study the issues.
Pima County and Oro Valley officials too have been at odds over the plans.
In a series of memos between December and February, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry voiced concerns over the fledgling negotiations.
The county wants guarantees that open space would be protected, especially in those areas near the county’s Tortolita Mountain Park at the western portion of Arroyo Grande, as well as wildlife corridors throughout the tract.
County Supervisor Ann Day also entered the fray when, at a February meeting with Catalina-area constituents, she cast doubt on Oro Valley’s commitment to protecting open space.
Oro Valley Councilman Barry Gillaspie accused Day and the county of trying to “control Oro Valley’s sovereignty.”
Throughout the negotiations, the land department has said up to 68 percent of Arroyo Grande would remain open space. While Oro Valley and state officials have lauded the plan for open space as unprecedented, questions remain.
In the land department’s conceptual plan, areas marked for rural housing could count as open space. That means houses slated for the western portion of Arroyo Grande at densities of one dwelling per 3 acres could meet open space requirements.
Land department officials have said that likely would not happen. Instead, they say, developments will go up in clusters.
“It’s not the percentage of open space, but the configuration,” The Nature Conservancy’s Collazo said.
If the proposed ballot measure became law, areas marked for protection would not have houses.
“Development rights would be gone from those areas,” Campbell said.
Open space presents another issue as well.
Until now, the land department has maintained that open space has to be purchased. But for the county or town to purchase more than 6,100 acres of land — the 68 percent identified in the conceptual plan — could prove cost-prohibitive.
A recent memo from Huckelberry to the state land department adds a new element to the increasingly complex negotiations for the coveted swath of desert.
In the newest exchange, Huckelberry expresses unease with the state’s contention that open space should be purchased.
“As you know,” Huckelberry wrote, “the County typically does not buy open space that is supposed to be set aside as part of a development project consistent with the Conservation Land System guidelines.”
Huckelberry wrote, however, that the county could feasibly purchase a portion of the open space, that adjacent to Tortolita Mountain Park, only if assurances are made that it will remain protected.
A transfer of development densities to other areas of Arroyo Grande would make open space within reach for the county to purchase.
“…I would assume that the conservation value of this land after the dwelling units have been transferred off of the land, would be nominal, such as $1,000 an acre or even less,” Huckelberry wrote.
Short of that, the county’s already tenuous support could dissolve.
“If we are unable to resolve our conservation concerns, and I am hopeful that we will be able to do so, I will have no choice but to recommend that the Board (of Supervisors) oppose this planned use of the property,” Huckelberry concludes.
Meanwhile, Oro Valley officials intend to push ahead with the process.
“We’re going to continue forward with our general plan amendment process,” Oro Valley Town Manager David Andrews said.
Earlier this month, the town council voted to start a general plan amendment process requested by the state. That could result in a pre-annexation agreement and new land use designations for Arroyo Grande.
The council approved spending $510,000 on the amendment and annexation, including $250,000 for outside legal counsel.
Andrews was mindful that the vote on the ballot initiative could greatly alter the annexation’s landscape.
“This could cause a big impact on what happens.”