Worrying signs appeared the day after the election in Oro Valley.
On Aug. 28, a slate of four candidates had swept out the town’s governing majority, largely on a slower-growth platform.
Then on Aug. 29, up popped the signs that said: “PUBLIC MEETING, proposed land development” and set out the times for two upcoming informational gatherings — 6 p.m. Sept. 13 and Sept. 20 at Oro Valley Town Hall. The annexation and rezoning of 885 desert acres of state land would be the biggest in many years for the town.
Neighbors including Diana Barnes, Rich Hyatt, Alyssa Page and Gary West got worried. They live just outside the boundaries of Oro Valley and have seen the scraping, blading and building accelerate over recent years. Now, it seemed, it was imminently threatening desert property just to their west.
“Now there is a sense of urgency,” Hyatt told me when I met with the four of them Thursday at Barnes’ home. “This is a huge decision that will be impacting this community for decades. The new leadership should decide it.”
The old leadership isn’t so sure. Outgoing Mayor Satish Hiremath has been in office for eight years in which he and the council majority have embraced development and, perhaps most controversially, engineered the purchase of two golf courses and a clubhouse that the new owner of the El Conquistador, HSL properties, didn’t want.
Hiremath told me Thursday people are wrong to think the government is trying to ram the annexation and rezoning through before the fast-growth majority leaves office Nov. 7. He noted the discussions with the state Land Department have been going on for nine years. But yes, he said, he would love to get the deal done fast.
“Would I love to get that through? Yes, because it assures the town of Oro Valley’s future success,” Hiremath said.
That’s what the four neighbors I talked to were worried about. And the incoming mayor, Joe Winfield, also disagrees.
“My hope would be that this decision about the annexation of the 885-plus acres would be a decision for the new council, versus the current council,” Winfield told me Thursday.
Winfield and the slate of Melanie Barrett, Joyce Jones-Ivey and Josh Nicolson won by accusing the reigning council majority, led by Hiremath, of being in the pocket of developers, leading to excessive destruction of the desert and undesirable development. Even after the controversial 2015 golf-course purchase, that majority won a recall election, then became a unanimity in 2016 when the three slow-growth council members were defeated.
But, Winfield said, the decisions of the past seemed to increasingly weigh on voters. The golf course and community center are requiring continuing subsidies, and the bare pieces of desert are proliferating. That’s one of the reasons he wants the new council majority to consider the new annexation.
The state Land Department is angling for more than 3,000 housing units on those 885 acres, located north and south of Tangerine Road and bordered by North Coyote Crossing Trail, West Moore Road, North Thornydale Road and Camino del Norte.
“It’s almost to the point where it feels like the state is strong-arming the jurisdiction,” Hyatt said. “They pressure the jurisdictions to zone for as dense zoning as possible. The majority of the people here are not saying ‘Not in our backyard.’ We’re saying ‘Let’s work together.’”
The town’s planning director, Bayer Vella, told me the public will be getting a good dose of input. After the initial meeting, the state plans to present a formal application. Then after the second meeting, another stage of the process will begin that will involve more public meetings.
Vella predicted the council won’t get to a vote until December or the new year, long after the new council takes office.
Whatever happens with that annexation, the new council majority still won’t be in much of a position to slow the growth that has already been approved. Winfield is acutely aware of the disappointment that might lead to in some of his supporters.
“People think all of a sudden this development is going to come to a screeching halt. That’s not the case,” he said. “The mayor and council approved 14 rezonings, meaning about 2,000 rooftops.”
That’s about seven years’ worth of inventory in the pipeline, Winfield warned. It also raises the stakes on the state land annexation, which should be the first big development decision to test the new council.
High primary turnout
Pima County was one of seven Arizona counties to break records last month for primary-election turnout.
Via Twitter, Garrett Archer, the data cruncher at the Arizona Secretary of State’s office, reported our county’s turnout at 39.93 percent, just a whisker short of 40 percent. That was 4.71 percentage points higher than the previous record, he said.
The other counties to set primary-election turnout records were Cochise, at 38.05 percent; Gila, at 45.32 percent; Maricopa, at 31.38 percent; Mohave, at 33.65 percent; Navajo, at 34.46 percent; and Yavapai, at 47.17 percent.
The raw number of voters also set records in 11 of 15 counties, among them Southern Arizona counties Pima, Cochise, Santa Cruz and Pinal. But of course that’s partly a function of population growth.
Statewide, the primary election turnout was 33.26 percent. That’s high for a primary, but still means that two-thirds of eligible voters didn’t cast a ballot.
Kovacs joins Garcia
Billy Kovacs’ fledgling political career did not end last week when he came in a distant fifth in the Democratic primary in Congressional District 2.
The 31-year-old Kovacs started a new chapter in his political biography before the ballots were finished being counted, joining Democrat David Garcia’s campaign for governor as its new political director.
Kovacs said over the weekend that his new job will have a number of responsibilities, but one of his most important will be to help get Garcia’s message out to Southern Arizona voters.