A massive development in Pinal County that could place up to 67,073 homes northwest of Marana is raising concerns among local officials who say they've received little information about the project.
La Osa Ranch, one of the largest housing developments to ever hit the region, has local government officials worried about the 22,150-acre project's impact on Pima County, Marana, Interstate 10, school districts and the environment.
"We don't really know that much about it," said Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. "Under state law we were supposed to be notified of any major comprehensive plan amendments and rezonings on our border but we haven't seen anything official from Pinal County. It looks like a lot of (housing) units and no infrastructure so obviously it's of some concern to us."
Marana Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat said Marana has tried repeatedly to get information about La Osa from Pinal County and has yet to hear anything back from them.
"This has the potential to have a tremendous impact on us and we're not being told anything about it. We've tried to get involved and tried to at least get on their distribution list but their planning staff did not allow us to be. We requested it and were turned down," Reuwsaat said.
The Pinal County Planning and Zoning Commission is expected to consider rezoning farm and ranch land for La Osa at its meeting Nov. 20. The commission is expected to forward its recommendation to the Pinal County Board of Supervisors for its Dec. 3 meeting where it will consider a comprehensive plan amendment and rezoning for the project.
Pinal County officials say the development has received almost no local opposition and will generate millions in tax revenue for the rural county.
"We've been working on it for years, but the P and Z meeting is what will finally break the egg wide open on the project," said Bonnie Bariola, a senior planner for Pinal County.
Sources close to the process say the project has wide support in Pinal County and they anticipate the project will be approved with little modification.
La Osa, Spanish for "the bear," would be developed over about a 20-year period, but the first phase of the project alone would place about 12,479 homes west of I-10 near Marana, said Pinal County Planning Director David Kuhl.
The overall project sprawls for about 16 miles west to east in a narrow, irregular ribbon north of the Ironwood National Monument five miles west of I-10 and midway between Marana and Eloy.
The odd configuration of the project is dictated by the confines of the Ironwood Monument and state land that surround the project, Kuhl said.
"It's essentially taking up all the privately-held land that lies between the state land out here," Kuhl said. "We've had people calling who own the little bit of (privately-held) land that's left wanting to know how they can get bought."
At build out, the project proposes to construct 48,180 homes on medium-density lots, 12,254 low density homes, 6,174 medium-high density, and 465 very low density homes.
The development would also have two resorts, 350 acres of commercial development and 40 acres for a civic center. No acreage has been sat aside for schools, according to a concept map and other documents obtained from Pinal County.
Pinal County is requiring 15 percent of the project to be open space and La Osa would earmark 2,680 acres for parks, trails open space and an "Ironwood Monument Interpretive Center."
La Osa is being built by Scottsdale developer George Johnson, whose company Johnson International built the Cañada Hills development in Oro Valley and several projects in the Phoenix area. He also has built several projects in Pinal County, and has a 5,300-home project under development near Queen Creek.
"George Johnson has developed a number of large master planned communities in Pinal County and we have a good track record with him," Bariola said.
Calls to representatives of Johnson International were not returned. Charles Hulsey, a planning consultant for the project, referred questions to Johnson.
Two citizens from Pima and Pinal counties said they also have left messages for Johnson and Hulsey seeking information on the project and their calls were not returned.
Reuwsaat said he e-mailed Pinal County Administrator Stanley Griffis directly Nov. 10 asking for information on La Osa and never received a reply.
Pima County sent a letter dated Nov. 10 to Pinal county planners expressing their concern that they had not been notified of the upcoming planning and zoning action.
Griffis said he was surprised that Marana and Pima County had not been notified and was not aware that Reuwsaat had sent him an e-mail.
"We're generally Johnny-on-the-spot on those kind of things and keep them apprised. We may not do what they want, but we at least give them the opportunity to give input," Griffis said.
In a phone interview, Griffis said he did not have much information on the project and referred questions to Pinal County's Planning Director.
"Our county managers haven't historically been involved in these issues until it comes to the board (of supervisors.) I do my damnedest to leave all of the zoning matters up to the board unless they ask me to intervene. At this point I know who is doing it, I know where it is; but as to what he's doing and what particular sections of the property are being done, I can't really answer that," Griffis said.
Mary Aguirre-Volger, a Pinal County Planning Commissioner, refused to comment on La Osa and said P and Z commissioners generally don't comment on matters before them "until after decisions are reached."
Kuhl and Bariola said there wasn't any concerted effort to restrict information on the project and the two met for more than an hour with a reporter from the Northwest EXPLORER in Florence, the Pinal County seat. They said Pima County and Marana had been recently added to their distribution list.
The Pinal planners provided maps and documents pertaining to La Osa to the EXPLORER, but referred questions about infrastructure for the project to Johnson International.
"Infrastructure is the big concern and transportation is the biggy," said Marana's Reuwsaat. "It's located on the backside of Pinal Airpark so there's a good chance that some of that traffic will come down Trico to Marana Road or the (I-10) interchange at Pinal Airpark which is outdated. And there's also issues like coordinating flood control efforts, but we just don't know how any of this will be handled because we haven't been able to get any information."
Reuwsaat said he was also concerned about the development's impact on Marana's small job base.
Transportation, along with encroachment on the Ironwood Monument, were Pima County's primary concerns.
"Much of the support system that is traditional for that kind of regional expansion is going to have to come in Northern Marana and Pima County. I would assume all of the job opportunities for it would lie to the south rather than the north, since Tucson is a larger metropolitan area, so traffic problems on the I-10 corridor will just get complicated that much more," Huckelberry said.
Dennis Alvarez, Tucson district engineer for the Arizona Department of Transportation, said he had just recently heard about La Osa and the state shared Marana and Pima County's concerns about traffic.
"Unfortunately, when there is a development near the interstate we have no control over it and right now there's not state funding for the kind of improvements that would be needed. We've never considered a development of that magnitude coming in there. We would have to reassess the whole long-range planning process," Alvarez said.
Marana Unified School District could potentially end up with many of the students from La Osa, along with Eloy's school district, until the Arizona School Facilities Board plans and builds schools for the development.
The project is located primarily in the boundaries of the Red Rock School District which currently serves 86 students and has no high school.
MUSD Superintendent Rick Lesko had not heard about La Osa and said "my God" when a reporter told him the amount of homes proposed for the development.
"You have state open enrollment laws, so they can cross district lines and county lines if space is available. We can take them if there is capacity. But there's no high school in the Red Rock area, so they're going to have to go to Eloy or Marana.
"By the time the school facilities board looked at land and worked the formulas for enrollment, there would be a period of time where we're impacted if this huge development comes into play. I don't know if the facilities board could build them fast enough, so there is definitely a concern there in the short term," Lesko said.
Carolyn Campbell, director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, said she and other environmentalists are very concerned that La Osa will abut Ironwood, the 129,000-acre National Monument the federal government designated just three years ago.
"But I haven't been able to get any information. Neither Pinal County or the developer have returned my calls. All we have is hearsay, but anything of that magnitude is going to have an effect on Ironwood," Campbell said.
According to a summary of projects in development in Pinal County compiled by county planners, more than 253,000 homes on more than 70,000 acres of land are currently working their way through the planning process.
"The area around Red Rock and the Pinal-Pima county line are one of our three busiest planning areas," said Kuhl, the county's planning director. "We expect things to be booming out there for some time."