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  • Writer's pictureH. James Tripp

The Proposed Tortolita Fan Special Planning Area (SPA): Will Development Be Appropriate?

Updated: Aug 2, 2020

By law, the State requires every municipality to create a General Plan every ten years.  For over a year, the Town of Marana (Town) and the Matrix Design Group (Consultant) have been in the process of formulating this required document with significant input from the Arizona State Land Department (ASLD). Unfortunately, the Mayor, Town Council and Town staff have so far acquiesced to ASLD’s request to change zoning guidelines. Originally, a merging of the 2,400 acres of the Tortolita Preserve and 5,650 acres of surrounding land into one 8,050 acre Special Planning Area (SPA) was proposed in the Draft of the Make Marana 2040 General Plan (General Plan). The SPA designation would give nearly endless rezoning and development options for State land restrained only by broad, general policies of “appropriateness” within its borders. Citizens on the eastern edge of Marana are currently embroiled in a battle with ASLD and Oro Valley where “appropriateness” restraints did nothing whatsoever to restrain the liberal use of “any zoning mix allowed” on 885 acres of environmentally sensitive land only a few miles east of the Tortolita Preserve. Marana voters will have the ultimate say on accepting or rejecting the General Plan in the August 2020 election. Citizen input prior to that vote ends on December 10th.

Marana residents responding to the call for comments on the General Plan were appalled to discover that their treasured Tortolita Preserve was missing from the Final Draft. Concerned residents began talking and even making presentations to their fellow neighbors in order to raise awareness for the potential loss of the Tortolita Preserve. On 11/20/19, over two hundred concerned citizens attended a Planning Commission Hearing and spoke on behalf of maintaining the current boundaries and zoning for the leased Tortolita Preserve. 

In response to this amount of public pressure, the latest draft of the General Plan now has the Tortolita Preserve depicted and listed separately from the surrounding SPA land, owned by ASLD. Although this is a giant step in the right direction, concerns about the surrounding land use still exists. For example, in the depiction to the right, the Tortolita Preserve is not colored green, for “Open Space/Park,” like the Tortolita Mountain Park at the extreme upper right. Why brown not green? Why are proposed arterial roads shown running through the Preserve? These are still deeply troubling details.

The apparent urgency and insistence upon modification of the General Plan for development is difficult to reconcile with the reality that there is no existing water supply for that region around the Tortolita Preserve and the infrastructure for it will be extremely costly. If there is no water, doesn’t that argue for retaining the current existing Land Use Categories from the 2010 General Plan, easing citizen concerns? The amount of resistance from the Town and ASLD on this topic, raises citizen concerns that there is some motivation which is not being revealed.

Why are citizens so insistent on getting clear and unambiguous depictions and language regarding no development in the Tortolita Preserve and light development in the surrounding land? Why are they so suspicious of motives to ease future rezoning? One of the biggest reasons is their experience with the ongoing proposed 885-acre annexation (885 Annexation) by Oro Valley referenced above. It was zoned similarly to the Marana SPA.

Despite assurances from Town and State that environmental concerns would be addressed and that the density of development would blend in with the surrounding properties, the Plan at left (Exhibit Y) was offered and rejected by citizens. For the “representative” housing density in the area of the 885 Annexation, the planners took the very last developed street, with the highest density of residential development, in Tangerine Crossing neighborhood (red). The defense was the ASLD as owner was entitled to the same density, which was allowed for Tangerine Crossing, it should be allowed for ASLD as well. The number of houses in the proposed 885 Annexation plan was 3,182. Water consumption was estimated at 860,000 gal/day. Those numbers were for 885 acres; the proposed 8000+ acres of SPA in the General Plan around Dove Mountain and Tangerine Road is roughly nine times that amount.

But there was more to dislike. First, the only areas deemed significant environmentally in this pristine Sonoran Desert parcel are shown in yellow. (Open Spaces are the thin green areas and the riparian/floodplain areas are in blue). Second, there is a bonus for developers (whom ASLD aptly calls their “customers”) in the areas shown in white with an asterisk. These are known as “Zoning Banks.” Here is the Zoning Bank concept in a nutshell: municipalities or local governments agree upfront to a set of zoning options to be exercised in the future by ASLD and their chosen developers, depending on market conditions. The options range from industrial, tech park, commercial, to apartment and residential developments of varying intensities. These zoning options are negotiated by municipalities or local governments once, and entitlements are then secured to the ASLD parcels and the land is put up for auction. By obtaining such entitlements, future owners and developers do not have to go through the traditional zoning process that requires so much time and so often encounters citizen resistance.

You might well ask why The Tortolita Alliance is so wary of the possibility that the SPA for Marana might be similar to the one for the 885 annexation by Oro Valley. The answer is the 2017 Budget for ASLD indicated that the 885 Annexation in Oro Valley was a pilot project to be implemented in Marana and then the entire State. See excerpt below.

The Table below comes from the same page of the 2017 ALSD Budget and identifies Wesley Mehl as the creator of the initial concept and the one who selected the pilot project site.

The SPA and Zoning Bank proposals only benefit ASLD and the developers. Notice that the Goal Statement shown in the excerpt above states the goal of the project is to “Reduce lead time for customers in order to expand the customer base and overall customer satisfaction". When ASLD land goes to auction, the development uncertainty is gone and the process is streamlined for developers, which are clearly their favored stakeholders. The citizens are not co-equal stakeholders, so their desires for balanced and healthy recreation, open space, wildlife, ecology, watershed are not valued. Plus, as previously mentioned, public water supply in the arid Southwest is now the key critical planning issue and water is not even being questioned and concerns are swept aside in this SPA designation. Quite literally, the Town of Marana and the Arizona State Land Department have the cart before the horse.

You have an opportunity to voice your opinion at the December 10, 2019 (6:00 PM) Special Town Council Meeting on the General Plan on the Marana Town Council Chambers at 11555 West Civic Center Drive. Please attend in any event, if possible, please offer your opinion at the meeting. The most effective way to prepare yourself, to listen critically and comment effectively, is to read the entire General Plan, including the “existing conditions” in the Map Atlas, the part that citizens, originally, were not allowed to comment upon. Doing nothing could result in ratification of a General Plan that will spawn inappropriate development such as some of us are fighting on Marana’s northeastern boundary.


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