Roger Yohem, Southern Arizona Home Builders Association communications director, was doing most of the talking, introducing the newest member of a reorganization team designed to strengthen ties with local governments and get in on the ground floor in addressing issues affecting the homebuilding industry.

Facing such issues such as the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, impact fees, the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, affordable housing and other government mandates, SAHBA leaders recognized the association was being overwhelmed in its attempts to address these issues because it was so badly understaffed, Yohem said during an interview in SAHBA's offices at 2840 N. Country Club Road.

A reorganization was begun in March that saw the appointments first of Corina Baca, a fourth generation Tucsonan and 17-year health care professional as the association's community support coordinator focusing on Tucson's Hispanic population, and then, in April, of Lori Lustig, a graduate of the Albany, N.Y. Law School, to serve as a government liaison to the city of Tucson and Pima County.

The newest member in the reorganization is Alex Jacome, a Tucson native son of a pioneer family and former assistant director of the Arizona Registrar of Contractors Office, whose job it will be to serve as the association's eyes and ears in Oro Valley, Marana and Sahuarita and to strengthen ties with staffs and elected officials in those jurisdictions.

"What has happened is that the association's leadership has come to the realization that we're facing so many issues on so many fronts that if we wanted to adequately educate the public on issues and work with public officials we needed to staff up," Yohem said.

"A lot of times we wouldn't know about an impact fee or a zoning change until it showed up on an agenda at a public meeting," Yohem said. "We're hoping to get ahead of this so we know when something is coming up.

"I think you'll see a real change in our approach to doing business with the municipalities in that it will be more of a partnership situation and at least sitting down at the table and breaking bread and saying we understand you have a need for impact fees because of your budget situation, but here are our concerns. So we can at least have a dialogue going and take discussions to a deeper level than they've ever been before.

"The idea is to get in on conversations early on rather than having to react to situations as has always happened in the past," Jacome said. "In reacting to issues you always end up seeming to be against everything and we're not against everything.

"What we'll be saying is 'Let's look at a particular approach again and see if there is a better way to do it,' " he said. "Maybe the builder should be doing something different, maybe the town should be. We're all in this together. We want to have a progressive community. We want to continue with the same lifestyle we have. But if you've been around long enough, you know that the last guy who bought his lot doesn't want the guy across the street to build a house on his lot. There is a fairness factor in all this, too, and we hope we can educate people to this fairness factor."

For 13 years, Alan Lurie, who recently retired as the association's executive vice president, had been trying to fulfill this role by himself, Yohem said. "He's done a fabulous job considering it's been a one-man, one-resource operation. But now we realize there are so many things going on that one person simply can't do it all. So we've added these new positions as kind of a divide and conquer strategy, assigning people to the different jurisdictions."

Jacome's responsibilities also will include keeping abreast of industry-impacting development issues as they arise with the Pima Association of Governments, the Registrar of Contractors Office and the state and Pima County Department of Environmental Quality.

In assuming the role, Jacome has suddenly become SAHBA's point man in the Northwest for a strategy designed to alert the homebuilding industry to issues as they arise.

"Our involvement would come prior to the time a particular issue comes up for a vote," Jacome said. In the case of impact fees as an example, he would be looking at what the fees are for and whether there might be another way of offsetting costs related to growth.

Jacome's duties will include attending council meetings, planning and zoning meetings, discussions at the town staff level and any activity that would help the association "keep its ear to the ground," he said.

SAHBA's representatives in the community aren't going to be lobbyists, Jacome said.

"We're not going to be involved in the voting process," he said. "If we change the minds of residents, staffs and elected officials it will be through education and a presentation of facts, putting a face to the homebuyer or resident who will be affected. We're not out there to hinder anything, we're there just to listen, to say, 'hey, if you do this, this is going to happen.' This is the kind of thing that is done at the staff level, this isn't beating the bushes with the town council," he said.

One of the areas Jacome will be looking into is the potential for government inflexibility.

Jacome wondered about this after attending a meeting in Oro Valley at which the council sought advice from the town attorney as to whether apartments were allowed in a mixed-use development being proposed by the Beztak Companies at the southeast corner of La Canada Drive and Lambert Lane.

"The council asked the attorney 'do we have to OK this' and the town attorney responded by saying if it meets the planned area development requirements, if it meets the zoning requirements, if it meets all these requirements, the answer is yes," Jacome said.

"And what did the council say? They said well, we need another opinion. We're getting in pretty much after the fact, but it seems to me we're dealing with areas of inflexibility that perhaps if we got together and talked about things we might be able to overcome this rigidness."

Another example of where this rigidity might be posing a problem may be reflected in the fact that in the latest quarter, three times as many building permits were issued in Sahuarita as in Oro Valley, he said.

Jacome noted that he's only been on the job since July 1 and is still feeling his way, not intending to be critical. "I'm just saying in general, let's revisit such issues, let's look for common ground and see if we can do something that's good for the builder and good for the towns as well," he said.

Oro Valley Councilmember Dick Johnson said SAHBA is moving in the right direction with its reorganization in terms of being less reactive and being more a part of the solution and with Jacome's appointment likely will help put in place improved lines of communication.

Just because SAHBA is looking to strengthen its community links doesn't mean that environmental concerns will take a back seat, Johnson said.

"We'll work with any group in terms of coming up with the best possible end result," Johnson said. "We have an environmentally sensitive land ordinance, a native plant ordinance, a lot of things written in our codes and our regulations, as well as federal and state requirements that help balance things.

"Throughout the process of our General Plan, those (environmental) issues have come forward and they have been well stated and they guide us in terms of land use and protection of the environment," Johnson said.

"We'll continue to be guardians of that, but we're also guardians of personal property rights and guardians of what we need to do in this community to maintain the legal rights of people to enjoy this community.

"When we evaluate something in terms of does it make sense, if we need to change a regulatory requirement to tighten it up, we'll do so, just as we've done on the native plant issue, the preservation of open spaces and riparian areas, those kinds of things," Johnson said. "I think we've done a good job of protecting the environment and will continue to do.

"One of the things the council is finally becoming aware of is the need to preserve some of the open spaces that we think are important around here. I think that's a challenge for our budget and a challenge for the priorities of our citizens.

"I think it's good having SAHBA on board in terms of discussions of growth paying for itself, but in a rational way, "Johnson said. "The issue that we can levy more and more fees and taxes on the building industry and not expect it to have some repercussions in terms of affordability is wrong."

Johnson said it would be out of line to compare the number of building permits being issued by Sahuarita to Oro Valley permits and draw a conclusion of government inflexibility.

The scarcity of land in Oro Valley has driven up land prices compared with Sahuarita and few developments of five and six homes per acre are being allowed in Oro Valley as they are in Sahuarita, he said.

In terms of affordable housing in Oro Valley, Johnson said there should be no illusions.

"Our land prices are such that if we define affordability as even the median home price of $160,000, I don't think we're building any subdivisions now that have a model home at that level. You're deluding yourself to say we're going to have affordable housing. There is a realization that unless you have government subsidies or something of that nature you are not going to have housing that is affordable."

Oro Valley's answer to affordable housing is apartments, Johnson said.

But as to the future of apartments in Oro Valley, "the die is cast," he said.

"I think the community as a result of General Plan discussions and other issues such as Beztak has stated very clearly that at least in the interior portions of Oro Valley, apartments are not what they want to see here. The deletion of a mixed-use neighborhood zoning designation was an expression of that by a lot of people in the community and I think that is something the council took under advisement.

"I don't think, apart from situations in which there is nothing we can do because people are entitled to build apartments based on age-old zoning changes, we are going to approve apartments anywhere but off the beaten path, essentially along Oracle Road," he said.

In terms of SAHBA's attempts to strengthen relations with the towns and other governments, Yohem said whatever the disagreements are, discussions will be based on "good faith, openness and mutual respect."

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