Rocking K closer to development; smaller-scale project will start contruction within two years

Smaller-scale project will start construction within two years
2013-05-19T00:00:00Z 2014-07-15T17:49:21Z Rocking K closer to development; smaller-scale project will start contruction within two yearsTony Davis Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 19, 2013 12:00 am  • 

After nearly a quarter-century of planning and controversy, the huge Rocking K development next to Saguaro National Park East should be ready to start construction within two years, the project's chief says.

"I think it's imminent. I think the market is coming back. There's a lot more interest now and there is pent-up demand," said Chris Monson, president of Rocking K Development, a company in which Diamond Ventures' CEO Donald Diamond is also an officer.

But the Rocking K of the future won't be quite on the scale of the Rocking K that the Pima County Board of Supervisors approved in late 1990. That 3-2 vote followed what perhaps was the hottest land use conflict in the Tucson area's history, one that polarized the community over the issue of development vs. preservation.

That board rezoned about 5,600 acres to allow 10,000 homes, four golf courses, three resorts and some commercial and industrial development on the far southeast fringes of metro Tucson.

Today, due to changing market conditions, Monson says the project will more likely hold about 2,000 to 3,000 homes, one golf course and one resort, plus a 50- to 75-acre commercial center and smaller areas of commercial development.

Rocking K's development site remains about the same as before, 5,000 to 6,000 acres, Monson said. That's even though the developers have sold about 1,900 acres to the federal government to expand the national park. New legislation would add another 1,374 acres of Rocking K to the park.

But the company also has added more land south of Old Spanish Trail since 1990.

4-mile extension of Valencia

The Rocking K plan has been amended once by the board, and a new development agreement has been signed. But the project languished for many years, in part due to the real estate market collapse that started in 2006-07 and is now slowly lifting.

Without that crash, "I think it would have developed sooner," Monson said. "It's all a function of the real estate market.

"I think Rocking K will be developed as a very nice master- planned community, with integrated open space, great trails, good school sites and a good commercial center. It still has most of the attributes it always had, although not as much of a resort capability as it had before," he said.

"We always are market driven. At one time, our Pima Canyon development (in the Catalina Foothills) was going to have a golf course, and the market proved it is worth more as open space without a golf course than with a golf course."

Two recent actions signify Rocking K's progress:

• In November 2011, Pima County officials and Rocking K Vice President David Goldstein signed an amended development agreement, requiring the developer to build various off-site road improvements according to a previously arranged timetable. The biggest single requirement is for the company to build a four-mile-long extension of East Valencia Road, including a bridge over the Pantano Wash, from Houghton Road east to Old Spanish Trail, after 1,440 homes are built. The money would come both from direct developer contributions and from impact fee payments to the county on individual homes, said Carla Blackwell, Pima County's deputy director of development services.

• More recently, county and Diamond Ventures officials have met to discuss a possible shift of development rights, to move a golf course for the project from an area near Rincon Creek near national park boundaries to an area south of Old Spanish Trail, said County Planning Director Arlen Colton. This would require a change to the county's existing development rights transfer program, which allows only transfer of rights for homes, not golf courses. A proposal to allow such transfers in general should go to the county Planning and Zoning Commission by late summer or early fall, Colton said.

Environmental fights

Back in 1990, Rocking K was opposed by numerous environmental, and neighborhood groups and wildlife advocates who feared loss of open space, potential for destruction of desert vegetation, more traffic, poorer air quality and a perceived threat to riverfront riparian areas. The board added numerous environmental mitigation measures that failed to defuse the opposition. Opponents launched what ultimately was an unsuccessful effort to overturn the zoning by referendum.

Supporters saw Rocking K as the perfect place for a master-planned community, adjoining a national park and offering a large amount of land that could be planned in one chunk. Advocates of such projects say they allow more uniform, higher quality development standards and economies of scale than smaller projects put together in piecemeal fashion.

When the Rocking K plan was amended by county supervisors in 1996, the following conditions were added or kept:

• Development must be designed in harmony with desert surroundings.

• No mass grading of desert will be allowed for housing densities of less than 2.5 homes per acre.

• The developer must submit management and restoration plans for Rincon Creek.

• Golf courses must be irrigated by treated sewage effluent, Central Arizona Project water or other renewable supplies. If those aren't available, groundwater pumping for the project must be offset by replenishment of CAP water at another location when that's practical.

• A third party must monitor mass grading of areas north of Old Spanish Trail to insure protection of natural open space.

Integrated open space

Monson pointed out that more than 50 percent of the project will be natural and "functional" open space, including parks and golf course land.

While the county's landmark 1993 riparian protection ordinance can't be applied retroactively to this project, Monson said the development plans meet the ordinance's objectives.

"Rocking K was at the forefront of that kind of effort," he said. "It was doing integrated open space in a development before it became the norm."

Looking back at the Rocking K controversy, longtime Tucson environmentalist Christina McVie said she would have preferred more stringent development standards.

"But we can't go back. We do have to live with it. They have to honor their commitments. They do have rights," said McVie, the Tucson Audubon Society's conservation chair.

She cautioned, however, that since the early 1990s, numerous studies and other forms of science have added to the knowledge of environmental threats such as erosion. She said she hopes the developers will recognize the economic benefits of protecting sensitive lands, since studies have shown that open space next to housing "is a big seller."

"I think both Mr. Diamond and Mr. Monson are good enough businessmen that they will employ best practices on the land," she said. "Best practices change over time, whether you are in development or medicine."

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@azstarnet.com or 806-7746.

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