Landowner's battle with county over road proposal could cost Tucson

2013-09-08T00:00:00Z 2013-09-09T07:15:09Z Landowner's battle with county over road proposal could cost TucsonBy Darren DaRonco Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

A landowner embroiled in a legal battle with Pima County over politics and a disputed southeast intersection is asking the city to annex his land.

The move could bring millions in revenue to city coffers, but it could also wind up putting city taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars in costs for a new road the landowner is asking for.

The issue involves land Michael Farley, manager of Valencia Kolb properties, owns east of South Kolb Road along East Valencia Road.

For years, Farley had worked with Pima County to build a new road that would bypass one of the region’s most congested intersections at Valencia and Kolb.

The plan was to construct a road off Valencia near Wilmot Road that would run southeast and intersect Kolb Road about a half-mile south of the current Valencia-Kolb intersection. The road would then extend about another quarter-mile to reconnect with Valencia.

Originally, the county would dedicate its land for the new road and federal stimulus dollars would cover the other expenses.

But the federal money never materialized. So attention turned to the RTA’s plans for improving the existing Valencia-Kolb intersection as a possible solution. The RTA has about $16 million to fix that intersection.

Farley said if the RTA put that money toward the new road to the south, it could relieve congestion at Valencia and Kolb and provide a road that could handle the future growth expected in the area.

When the construction estimate came in late 2011 for this proposed southern alignment though, it showed the cost would be about $24 million to build the new road. In addition, traffic studies showed the new road would actually increase traffic delays by almost 50 percent.

So in January 2012, the county informed Farley it was no longer interested in studying the southern alignment, but continued discussing possible options.

Later that year, in October, the county turned the entire project over to the RTA.

Farley said Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry reneged on the project because Farley had campaigned against incumbent county supervisors in the 2012 election.

Huckelberry has said the county tried to accommodate Farley’s plans but couldn’t justify the expense especially since it would cost motorists even more time if the new road was built.

Huckelberry said the county turned over the project when it became apparent Farley’s political attacks were creating a conflict of interest. He said Farley placed them in a no-win situation where no matter the county’s actions, he would charge the county made a biased decision.

Even though the project is in the RTA’s hands now, Farley contends Huckelberry is still pressuring the transportation authority to nix the southern alignment because Farley has fallen out of favor with county leaders.

“It all depends on where you stand on the political pecking order in this community,” Farley said.

Huckelberry said the county is not retaliating against Farley, who filed an $11 million claim against the county in March.

Cost dispute

Farley disputes the $24 million projected cost. His estimates, which are based on a quote he received from a contractor willing to work on the project, shows it could be done for less than $16 million.

Yet, Jim DeGrood, RTA transportation services director, said Farley’s projections omitted costs such as traffic signals, and undervalued others. DeGrood said he’s run the numbers again and costs still range between $22 million and $24 million even when he gives Farley the benefit of the doubt on some numbers.

The RTA has yet to vote on whether to approve Farley’s plan. That’s expected to take place sometime this fall.

Even if it does approve Farley’s plan, DeGrood said, the RTA would still have to find $16 million to fix the current Valencia-Kolb intersection, plus the $7 million to cover the gaps in the new road’s finances.

And the RTA doesn’t have money to throw around.

“I tell everybody now, you can only eat what you kill,” DeGrood said.

DeGrood said Farley’s plan could benefit future traffic needs as the southeast side grows, but he doesn’t believe that will happen for at least another decade. He said the existing intersection needs to be fixed now.

City would pay

If the RTA doesn’t foot the bill, who does?

According to the city’s preliminary annexation agreement, city taxpayers.

A section in the agreement states if the owner of the property requests the new road, and further studies show it’s appropriate, the city agrees to design and construct it. Furthermore, if the county doesn’t hand over its property for the road, the city will pay for that as well.

And it’s those provisions that concern Tucson Councilman Steve Kozachik.

“The agreement made no sense when the county rejected it, and it makes even less sense for us,” Kozachik said. “We don’t have two nickels to rub together, much less millions of dollars to cut a deal that the county correctly deep-sixed when it was in front of them.”

Kozachik said there’s no need for city staffers to waste any more paper on the deal if nothing changes.

“Sections 3 and 4 of the draft agreement are total giveaways to the developer. We pay for a new road, new access onto the site, put in more traffic signals that would slow down an already overtaxed street, and give him a pass on grading permits, building permits and environmental reviews,” Kozachik said. “Nice deal if he can swing it, but this thing is so far from being fair to the taxpayers that staff shouldn’t even bring it to us and ask for a public conversation about it.”

Farley said the sections Kozachik referenced don’t pertain to the entire road, but just a small piece that stretches along his property’s southern boundary. If the RTA does the right thing and approves money for the southern alignment, he said, there wouldn’t be inordinate expenses to worry about.

Chris Kaselemis, who heads the city’s annexation efforts, said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the draft agreement because it was not a public record as of yet. He said nothing has been agreed upon, and the draft agreement was intended to be only a starting point for discussion.

Farley said he isn’t trying to siphon off money from taxpayers. He just wants to move the project forward so development can begin on a piece of property that has sat vacant for decades. He said he wouldn’t be asking for anything that wasn’t already available to others who do business in the city.

If the property were ever fully developed, Farley estimates the city would see about $6 million annually in tax revenue.

“We have something that would be beneficial,” Farley said. “I think a reasonable return after 40 years is not being greedy developers.”

Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at 573-4243 or ddaronco@azstarnet.com. Follow on twitter @DarrenDaRonco

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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