The Tucson City Council will consider today whether to allow water to be extended to the suburbs for new developments that bring good-paying jobs.
It's one of several changes recommended by a city advisory committee to a policy that, since 2010, has limited where Tucson Water will extend pipelines outside of city limits, to discourage the proliferation of unincorporated suburbs.
Developers say the proposed changes still aren't "jobs-friendly" - while conservationists say the proposals will ensure the city has a secure water future in coming decades.
David Godlewski, co-chair of the business-backed Tucson Regional Water Coalition, said the changes would keep out some businesses "who could provide good, high-paying jobs and still not meet these arbitrary criteria for getting water service."
"We still have some concerns it's going to be an impediment, and make economic development in the region more difficult," said Godlewski, executive vice president of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association.
Karilyn Roach, coordinator of the Community Water Coalition, which represents environmental, neighborhood and nonprofit groups, countered that virtually every major municipality in the Tucson area has defined service boundaries outside which they don't serve growth.
"It makes sense economically and environmentally for Tucson to serve water within this limit and not outside," Roach said. The policy "includes enough exemptions and annexation possibilities to be able to incorporate a reasonable amount of growth," she said.
Limits set in 2007
For decades, Tucson Water extended service to virtually anyone requesting it. But in December 2007, then-City Manager Mike Hein slammed the door on new water extensions outside city limits.
The moratorium lasted until the City Council approved a formal plan for extensions in August 2010, with annexation in designated expansion areas being the easiest way for new developments outside the city to get water. In areas not designated for expansion, the only way to get water outside the city is if parcels smaller than 20 acres are nearly surrounded by land that already gets city water. The council can, however, grant new water service for projects providing "clear and substantial benefit to the region."
Specific proposals now before the council would:
• Allow a review board to recommend that the City Council OK water service for a developer who qualified for a "primary jobs incentive" exemption. It would be open to developers who invest at least $5 million in new or expanded facilities, create at least 25 jobs paying at least 150 percent of the city's average wage, and pay at least 75 percent of employee health premiums.
• Allow residential parcels of more than 20 acres to get water service if their net developable land is fewer than 20 acres, after landowners have set aside their remaining property as undevelopable open space for whatever reason. Parcels in commercial development would get 50 acres of net developable land, since that uses about as much water as 20 acres of homes.
• Establish an administrative review board to handle appeals of Tucson Water denials.
• Allow developers to appeal a board denial to the City Council.
Water is top concern
Originally, the idea of allowing water extensions for developers meeting the job incentive criteria was controversial among conservationists who felt it was poorly defined, but they've come around to accept it, Roach said.
"We live in a desert. Water becomes the No. 1 determining factor for how a city can grow. Projections for the Colorado River supply are kind of bleak. Knowing we can have some kind of control over a city resource makes sense," Roach said.
But developers weren't listened to, SAHBA's Godlewski said, when they also requested a 60-day "grandfathering" period in which landowners who had received Tucson Water letters promising water service before December 2007 could now get such service even though their original letters are expired.
"We understand the importance of having a water policy in place," Godlewski said. "It wasn't like we said totally get rid of the policy. It was, 'Let's work on a comprehensive approach to come up with reasonable solutions.' "
This debate may not end soon. As the 2010 water service policy now stands, it must be reviewed annually.
IF YOU GO
The City Council's meeting begins at 5:30 p.m. today at City Hall, 255 W. Alameda St. Public comment isn't scheduled on the proposed changes to the water service policy.
Contact reporter Tony Davis at email@example.com or 806-7746.