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Posted: Wednesday, February 20, 2002 12:00 am

Oro Valley is questioning Pima County's request to have the Arizona Land Department reclassify more than 3,000 acres north of the town to establish a biological corridor for wildlife as part of Tortolita Mountain Park expansion.

The county is asking the state to reclassify a total of 9,150 acres it owns for conservation purposes as part of the park expansion under a measure known as the Arizona Preserve Initiative.

Oro Valley is concerned primarily with 3,442 acres of the total that would form the biological corridor. The area, which includes land east of the eastern boundary of Neighborhood 12 in Rancho Vistoso to Oracle Road, north to Pinal County, is seen as a biological linkage that would connect the Tortolita Mountain range with Big Wash, Catalina State Park, the Canada del Oro Wash, Sutherland Basin and the Coronado National Forest.

Oro Valley wants to know what impact the corridor reclassification will have on the town's General Plan and plans it has had since 1996 to annex that land, said Community Development Director Brent Sinclair.

The town also is raising questions as to why this area should be designated as a wildlife corridor in light of the development that has taken place both east and west along Oracle and development in Catalina that would take wildlife across a four-lane highway, Sinclair said.

Current and proposed development along Oracle includes several shopping centers, a prison, a school and a 414-home development on 183 acres in Catalina on the south side of Golder Ranch Drive, about one-quarter mile east of Oracle Road. Much of the Oracle Road frontage as well is designated for commercial or industrial use in the General Plan.

Town officials are sending a letter to state Land Commissioner Michael Anable questioning whether it makes sense for the county to spend public funds to purchase an area for conservation when development already approved by the county and reflected in Oro Valley's General Plan has taken place.

As an example, Sinclair told the Town Council at a Feb. 11 study session, the county's request would include the purchase of Big Wash, a major riparian area that is undevelopable anyway and needs no protection.

In a recent memo to the Town Council, planners noted potential negative impacts of the corridor reclassification, pointing out that lands along Oracle Road, now intended for commercial park use, would not be developed as commercial uses, there would be a loss of short-term revenues related to residential construction, and future development would be shifted further north requiring more costly extensions of infrastructure.

Town officials are also concerned about the impact the county's plans may have on Oro Valley's future annexation plans since the land, once reclassified, would be taken off the market for from three to five years to allow the county time to prepare a detailed plan for the property and to raise the money needed to purchase it.

Creation of the corridor would also leave Oro Valley with just slivers of land that would make annexation impractical and deprive the town of the flexibility to address future growth needs, Sinclair said.

Pima County's Open Space Bond Program, approved by voters in 1997, would provide about $4 million to speed the purchase of the reclassification lands.

In the late 1990s Oro Valley sought to annex the 9,650 acres included in the reclassification now being requested by the county, but the effort was tabled. Town Manager Chuck Sweet is currently preparing another such request.

The county's goal of purchasing the 6,118 acres that would comprise the Tortolita Mountain Park Expansion Area is not being contested and has been in Oro Valley's General Plan for years. This area includes land west of the eastern boundary of Rancho Vistoso's Neighborhood 12 to Tortolita Mountain Park and north to the Pinal County line.

Included in this area are a wide range of wildlife ranging from mountain lion, peccary and mule deer to a large number of birds and lizards; several riparian corridors such as Honey Bee Canyon, Sausalito Creek and Big Wash; large stands of cactus and ironwood trees; the "Indian Town" site on the Pima-Pinal County border giving evidence of the Hohokam Indians' presence; and breathtaking views of prominent peaks and ridges.

Both Oro Valley and Pima County support the major open space designations as a means of enhancing quality of life, making surrounding areas more desirable places to live, bolstering land values and contributing to resort activities.

The biological corridor being added to the Tortolita Mountain Park Expansion Plan , however, caught the town somewhat by surprise when planners saw it for the first time just a month ago, Sinclair said.

Lillian Moodey, a state Land Department spokesperson, said it is is not unusual for land near development to be reclassified for conservation purposes. In Scottsdale, for example, development surrounds land reclassified to link the McDowell Regional Park and Tonto National Forest lands, she said.

Moodey, however, was not certain whether nearby development would affect a reclassification of land to establish a biological corridor.

She emphasized that Pima County's reclassification request is in the very early stages and that because of the size of the reclassification sought, a normal 30-day comment period has been extended to a thus far undetermined date.

The state land commissioner must first nominate land to be considered for reclassification before the process begins, and in the case of Pima County's request not even that has been done yet, she said.

As of mid-January, the state Land Department had received 27 petitions to classify trust lands totaling 100,500 acres as suitable for conservation. Fourteen petitions representing 37,785 acres had been totally or partially reclassified and 13 petitions for reclassification representing 54,570 acres were in the process of review or awaiting action, according to the department's Web site (www.land. state.az.us)

Reclassification of state lands for conservation purposes was made possible by the Arizona Preserve Initiative, a measure passed into law in 1996 to encourage the selection of select parcels of state land in and around urban areas for open space to benefit future generations.

Amendments were made to the initiative in 1997, 1998 and 1999 that, among other things, made the land within the Tortolita Mountains eligible for conservation consideration.

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