An environmental group that has repeatedly sued the federal government to force the protection of endangered species has threatened to sue the town of Marana over its plans to annex a 319-acre swath of desert and horse properties targeted for development.

The Dec. 16 letter from the Center for Biological Diversity threatening legal action came the same day Pima County residents packed a public hearing before the Marana Town Council to protest plans to annex the property located north and south of Cortaro Farms Road and east and west of Camino de Oeste.

Developers Mike Carlier and Raul Pina of CPE Development plan to extend Camino de Oeste south of Cortaro to Pima Farms Road and build about 215 homes on land they own south of Cortaro if the annexation is successful.

Carlier said CPE had garnered 13 signatures on a petition from property owners in favor of becoming Maranans. Only 11 signatures representing more than 50 percent of the landowners were required to implement the annexation.

Dick Gear, Marana's economic development director who is coordinating the annexation, was on vacation last week and unavailable to confirm the number of signatures obtained.

In conjunction with CPE's plans, property owners Richard and Geneva Gentry are seeking to develop a five-acre commercial parcel at Cortaro and Camino de Oeste. The Pima County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to deny the Gentry's plans to place a car wash and gas station on the property during a hearing Sept. 18, 2001, after neighbors and environmentalists protested the project.

Daniel Patterson, a wildlife biologist with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, said his organization believes Marana's annexation and the proposed developments threaten wildlife corridors and are inappropriate for an area zoned for suburban ranch properties.

"We're skeptical that things are going to be better off under Marana," Patterson said.

In his letter to the Marana mayor and council on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Patterson called for "independent environmental impact studies" and wrote:

"We are investigating the legality of Marana's approach to this proposed annexation. If forced, we may join with concerned Marana and Pima County citizens to sue to block it. Please be wise and drop this proposed annexation. There are much less controversial and more appropriate areas for Marana to focus growth than in this critical habitat rural area."

Patterson would not elaborate on the "legality" of Marana's annexation. Marana Town Attorney Frank Cassidy said he was not aware of anything illegal in the town's efforts but expected he would "hear more from the center" about the issue in the future.

"At this point, the annexation is proceeding pretty normally and we're not quite clear what they mean by 'the approach to the proposed annexation.' That's kind of a weird way of saying that," Cassidy said.

The privately-funded Center for Biological Diversity has filed scores of lawsuits against governmental entities since it was founded in the mid 1990s. In one of its most high-profile cases, the center successfully sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to have the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl listed as an endangered species. The 1997 listing led to development restrictions on 731,000 acres of land in Southern Arizona, including large portions of Marana, that had been deemed critical habitat for the bird.

The Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this month moved to remove the owl from the endangered species list and a federal judge has taken the service's petition under advisement. The property proposed for annexation by Marana lies on the southern edge of the area formerly designated as pygmy owl critical habitat.

Carlier said he was mystified by the threat of a lawsuit and believed CPE was working hard to address the concerns of neighbors and environmentalists.

He pointed to the $5,000 per home fee the developers had agreed to pay the town for open space acquisition and infrastructure improvement on top of a $1,500 per home impact fee as an indication of their good-faith effort.

"The environmentalists are always quick to say there are other sites to be developed, but then you go somewhere else and they bitch about that. This isn't an issue about developing at Camino de Oeste. For them, it's all about slowing the pace of growth. They don't want to see anything developed," Carlier said in a phone interview.

At the Dec. 16 public hearing, nine citizens voiced their objections to the annexation before the Marana council, expressing concerns that included increased traffic, depletion of the water table, flooding and damage to the environment.

Pima County neighbor Neil McHugh said the boundaries of the annexation were "gerrymandered" to avoid critical habitat and he thought the developers believed they could get their project approved easier in Marana than in Pima County.

"The environment is the source of our values and virtues," McHugh said to applause from the annexation opponents. "We have an obligation to protect it."

Two citizens and two planners representing the developers spoke in favor of annexation. The citizens in favor of the annexation cited their displeasure with what they said were high taxes and poor services in the county.

Ron Asta, a planner representing CPE Development, said Marana's annexation of the area could speed up plans to widen Cortaro that have been delayed in Pima County.

"We think the focus of energy and resources coming from this annexation could allow us to get started on the widening of Cortaro this year rather than in 2008 as planned by the county," Asta said.

Marana Mayor Bobby Sutton, Jr. said many Pima County residents who had been annexed into the town initially expressed skepticism about living in Marana, but were later pleased.

"I understand the perceptions of this community, and I understand those perceptions are never swayed until something happens to prove them wrong," Sutton said during the hearing. "I think we've proven some people wrong in their perceptions in the past. We do a good job, and most of you will find that out if the annexation goes through … The experience I've had working with potential neighbors is, unfortunately, that it always starts like this. It's always 'big bad Marana is coming in to blade and grade.' But we have the highest impact fees in all of Pima County. We nail developers left and right."

The public hearing was one of the first steps in the town's annexation process and no action was taken by the council. In an interview after the meeting, Marana Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat said no specific date had been set for the council's consideration of final approval of the annexation.

"We have a lot of work ahead of us," Reuwsaat said. "There were a lot of concerns raised by the residents, but those same concerns are our concerns and we're going to work to address them."

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