The long-standing conflict of growth versus environmental protection on the northwest side, quelled for years by the real estate slump, returns to the Pima County Board of Supervisors today.
The board will consider a Tucson developer’s request for major increases in allowable development intensity on four parcels totaling about 120 acres on or very near North Thornydale Road — in the heart of the region’s old-growth saguaro-ironwood forest.
That area has been ground zero for the growth-environment struggles for two decades because of the heavy concentration of lush Sonoran Desert vegetation there. But the request from Red Point Development Inc. is the first major push for amendments to the county’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan in this area since the real estate crash hit in 2007 and 2008.
Comprehensive-plan amendments are the first steps toward seeking full-scale rezonings.
The environmentalist Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection and some neighbors oppose the request, as they have similar requests in the past. The County Planning and Zoning Commission has recommended against them. But environmentalists are missing a key ally this time: County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. He wants the largest parcel of the four saved completely while letting the others be developed.
The parcels in question are in an area that at one time was considered the logical path for growth. Plenty of development already exists there. The lands lie very near or adjacent to subdivisions, two supermarket-anchored shopping centers, a high school and a middle school, convenience stores, a bank, a credit union, a post office and other development.
That’s a prime argument the developer’s representative, Jim Portner, has made — that these properties have become “infill,” near existing development. He says his client’s plan should be considered Smart Growth, or sustainable, environmentally sensitive development.
The Smart Growth principles at play here include the possibility of mixed-use developments, compact building designs, open-space provisions and opportunities for transit due to the high development densities planned, he said.
But the lands themselves are generally pristine, covered not just with large and small saguaros and ironwoods but also with prickly pears, mesquites, palo verdes and cholla stands. The ironwood forest’s presence has served as a barrier to high-intensity development there for more than a decade.
Since roughly 2001, development in this area has been governed by the county’s conservation guidelines — established under the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan — calling for 65 to 80 percent of sensitive lands to be set aside when private land is rezoned for large-scale building. In fact, the county board in 2001 slashed allowable housing densities on these properties — an action Red Point is seeking to reverse.
Huckelberry opposes the blanket use of the county’s land-saving guidelines to these parcels. He believes it’s more logical to entirely preserve the largest and most environmentally treasured one: 54 acres at Thornydale and Cortaro Farms roads, which adjoins open land owned by the Tucson Audubon Society.
“To leave the large piece completely conserved, 100 percent, in exchange for developing other, smaller pieces, that would do more for conservation than strict interpretation of the guidelines for all the pieces,” he said Monday.
But Carolyn Campbell, the coalition’s executive director, argued that it would be a mistake to “absolutely throw out the window” the conservation guidelines for the other three parcels. The guidelines are part of the county’s Conservation Land System, which is supposed to protect sensitive lands. “What does that say to all the other developers?” Campbell asked.
Besides that, the map Huckelberry submitted to the supervisors with a memo outlining his views shows a substantial slice of the Cortaro-Thornydale parcel as open for development, she noted, leaving her skeptical of what the outcome of the administrator’s plan would be.
“The overarching goal of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan is to ensure the survival of the full spectrum of plants and animals,” Campbell said Monday. “We and the scientists have talked about the importance of the ironwood-saguaro habitat for years.”
Scott Richardson, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wrote the county that 80 percent of the four parcels should be set aside as open-space habitat for the once-endangered pygmy owl.
Portner didn’t return several phone calls from the Star seeking comment on the proposal. In testimony to the planning-zoning body, he said the properties’ washes would be preserved.
Huckelberry said that when the developer’s consultant met with county officials, he was “sympathetic but not favorable” to the idea of saving the entire Thornydale-Cortaro parcel, because it may have more than one owner.
Portner told the planning commission in September that he couldn’t commit to having his projects comply fully with the land-saving guidelines because he doesn’t know how they’ll ultimately be applied to each parcel.