Marana Town Council member Carol McGorray said she hadn't revealed to anyone, including her fellow council members, how she would vote on the controversial plan to rezone and develop the historic Lazy K ranch into a gated community.
McGorray came into Tuesday's council meeting with an open mind, she said in a Wednesday interview. But from the beginning, she'd had misgivings about placing 178 homes on a site that she says "exemplifies the West."
When considering Marana's appeal to tourists, "what do we have that’s different than the rest of the country?" she said. "That is one of the most pristine, beautiful, exemplary places in all of Arizona. I wrestled with this really hard, continuously throughout the process."
But she added, "This was no last-minute change in my mind. I went there with an open mind to see if anything anybody had to say might persuade me to vote for it."
That didn't happen.
For the second time, the Marana Town Council surprised many of its constituents by rejecting the rezoning and development plan that many believed was a shoo-in.
Patti Comerford and McGorray cast the only votes against the rezoning and development proposal, which would have needed a supermajority — or six votes in support — to pass the seven-member council.
Developer Mattamy Homes, Canada's largest new-home builder, and property owners Jim Shiner and Peter Evans want to turn the now-closed Lazy K Bar Guest Ranch into a gated community, with 178 homes on the 138-acre site.
In October, the council first rejected the rezoning by a vote of 5-1, with one member absent — Vice Mayor Jon Post — and Comerford the lone “nay” vote.
McGorray said she voted for the plan in October after Comerford had already cast her vote against it, making the plan already "dead in the water." Her vote came after the developers agreed to make all homes single story, at McGorray's insistence. She voted in favor to show that concession was a crucial one, she said.
On Wednesday, Ryan Huffman, vice president of land acquisition and development for Mattamy, did not immediately respond to queries about whether the company plans to resubmit the proposal. The developer would have to — for the third time — get approval from the Marana planning commission before it could go before the council again.
Shiner and Evans didn't immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
The proposal would have changed the 138-acre property from "resort and recreation" zoning to "specific plan," to allow for increased density. When Shiner and Evans bought the property in 1998, it was still in unincorporated Pima County and zoned for one home per 3.3 acres. Current zoning also allows one home per 3.3 acres or other uses like a hotel.
Before it was annexed into Marana in 2001, the parcel was protected by the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, adopted by Pima County. The plan limits development to 80 percent natural undisturbed open space. Marana has chosen not to adopt the plan, nor has it adopted its own draft habitat conservation plan.
The Lazy K proposal angered and saddened many neighbors and conservationists. Some said the proposal continued a damaging pattern of "up-zoning" in Marana, which has resulted in the formerly rural area east of the project being transformed into high-density developments. The population boom has resulted in strains on the water supply, with residents saying their well levels are dropping. The parcel sits in the environmentally fragile Safford Peak Watershed Area and contains centuries-old ironwood trees and saguaro cacti and is frequented by wildlife like deer, desert tortoises and javelina.
Lazy K developers worked out an agreement with some property owners north of the project site, exchanging a guarantee of access to Marana's water supply if those neighbors would agree to support the project publicly, the Star reported.
The defeat came in spite of a last-minute compromise, worked out just hours before Tuesday's meeting, between the developers and the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, who had previously opposed the plan. Among the conditions for the coalition's support were:
• creation of a 300-foot buffer on the western edge of the property and a 150-foot buffer on the northern edge, to minimize overlap with a significant wildlife corridor there;
• assurance that no lots would encroach on important riparian areas, as defined in the specific plan;
• native and salvageable ironwoods and saguaros affected by construction would be transplanted and reestablished on the site.
The coalition's priority was protecting the wildlife corridor, a critical link for animals traveling between Saguaro National Park and the Tortolita Fan, said Carolyn Campbell, executive director of the coalition. The concessions made the proposal "significantly better" than the damage that could otherwise be done on the site, she said at the meeting.
But the revised plan still included 178 homes, a deal-breaker for other opponents.
Pat Lopez, who had been hired by some opponents to fight the proposal, called the meeting "gut-wrenching" and said he reluctantly supported the compromise.
Expecting the plan would pass, he said at the meeting, "Don't let this be a precedent for the future. ... Once a 400-year-old ironwood is blighted to the ground, it will never be there again."
Some, including Saguaro National Park officials, said the compromise didn't go far enough.
"We don't ask that this area remain undeveloped. We ask that it be done in a responsible manner, in cooperation with us," Darla Sidles, park superintendent, told council members. She said the park should have been involved from the start in determining a development proposal for the site, less than one-half mile from Saguaro National Park West.
Council member Roxanne Ziegler apologized to Sidles at the meeting, just before she made the motion to adopt the plan.
"I wish we had brought you in earlier," she said. "I don't think we left you out on purpose. ... This isn't easy for us either."
McGorray said Wednesday she won't make predictions about whether she'd support a modified Lazy K plan.
"They might come up with an idea that I think is a whole lot better, they may not. The ball is in their court," she said of the developers.
Citizens' attendance and comments at public meetings truly make a difference, she said.
"I appreciate each and every person who comes to speak, no matter which side they are on. Nothing is set in stone until that vote takes place," McGorray said. "People should persist."
Contact reporter Emily Bregel at 807-7774 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @EmilyBregel