Sept. 1, 2004 - Several of Marana's largest developers have joined forces against a group of citizens that set out to overturn the town's rezoning of 104 acres to allow for the 200-home Willow Ridge development.
Marana voters will determine the fate of the development in a Sept. 7 special election when they decide whether or not to uphold the town's rezoning of the land located south of Cortaro Farms Road, east of Hartman Lane and west of Star Grass Drive. If a majority of Marana residents vote yes on Proposition 400, the rezoning will remain in place.
In an effort to ensure that happens, developers throughout Marana contributed thousands of dollars to the Yes On Proposition 400 committee. The group raised a total of $68,550, more than 14 times the amount gathered by the the three opposing political committees - Citizens for Responsible Growth in Marana, Taxpayers for Smarter Growth and Vote No On Proposition 400, according to finance records filed with the town.
Dan Sullivan, chairman of the Yes On Proposition 400 committee, said he could only speculate about the motivations behind the contributions. He did say the financial support shows the solidarity of developers in reacting against a group of citizens looking to circumvent Marana's plans for responsible growth.
However, Kevin McHugh, the treasurer of Taxpayers for Smarter Growth, disagreed with Sullivan about the factor that prompted the developers' contributions.
"I think it shows the development community is afraid of the democratic process," he said. He added that the town was never receptive to input from Marana residents concerned about the effects of the development, making citizen action against the town necessary.
Town officials maintain that meetings were held in the area prior to the rezoning to ensure residents had the opportunity to voice their concerns. Because Marana has considerable development activity, developers would be discouraged if Marana residents overturn the rezoning, especially after the developer has gone through the rigorous process set up by the town, Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat said.
"I think what you have here is a few people reacting against the fact that the town staff would recommend the project despite some opposition," he said.
The chairman of Vote No On Proposition 400, Dan Lawrence, who is a business broker from Tucson running for state representative in District 28, said the rezoning turned out to be a "sweetheart deal" for town officials and developers.
"I think this all part of the epic struggle between development and the small guy," Lawrence said. "This is a struggle that's continued through the history of Arizona - to change communities from suburban ranch to commercial strip."
On the other hand, the town and its supporters say the rezoning occurred with substantial resident input and is in the best interests of the town. Sullivan pointed out that Lawrence and others who spearheaded the opposition to the town's action are not Marana residents and, therefore, not affected by the rezoning. However, some of the leaders of the opposition group own property that borders Willow Ridge.
"I, as a citizen, took on the responsibility of chair because I resent the intrusion of an outside, elitist influence trying to persuade Marana residents how to build and how to grow," Sullivan said.
The rezoning will also affect the widening of Cortaro, because without the development, improving the road could take as many five more years, town officials said. That's because CPE Development - the developer of Willow Ridge - agreed to contribute $700,000 up front, in lieu of a construction tax, that will go toward widening Cortaro, said Raul Pina, a partner in the Willow Ridge development. The total cost of widening the road east Interstate 10 to Star Grass Drive will approach $8 million and be paid for by the town and Pima County, Pina said.
Continental Ranch developer Greg Wexler donated $4,950 to the committee that favored the passage of Proposition 400. That total is more than the entire amount, about $4,600, collected by the committees against the proposition. Taxpayers for Smarter Growth received $4,050 from the organization Defenders of Wildlife and $590 from the organization Desert Watch.
Wexler said the money was donated because the widening of Cortaro Farms Road would benefit the town. Furthermore, Marana has a history of responsible development that should continue. As to why so many developers rallied behind the Yes On Proposition 400 committee, he said developers had their own interest in mind and after they meet the town's requirements for development, they want to see their projects move forward.
CPE Development Inc. contributed $4,950 to the Yes On Proposition 400 committee, mainly because the developer already has invested a substantial amount of money into Willow Ridge and the widening of Cortaro, said Mike Carlier, president of Carlier Co. and partner in CPE Development.
A corporation called Triangle Ventures LLC, with members including prominent Tucson developers Yoram Levy, Don Semro and Thomas Warne - contributed $4,900. Warne and Sullivan served together on the Pima County Bond Advisory Committee in 2003. Warne said that although the members had no current developments affected by the rezoning, Triangle Ventures contributed the money because there needs to be balance between development and open space. He noted that he supports the preservation of open space, and this development represents a compromise between creating affordable housing and sustaining the environment.
Attorneys Daniel Hochuli and Thomas Benavidez each contributed $2,400 to the Yes On Proposition 400 committee. Hochuli and Benavidez, formerly the town's contracted lawy firm, were unavailable for comment.
Still, those who oppose the rezoning maintain the Willow Ridge development does not represent smart growth in Marana. The town's population has increased substantially in the past few years, and only if officials manage that growth responsibly can residents maintain their quality of life, McHugh said.
He added that the town did not listen to residents' original concerns when they annexed nearly 300 acres near Camino de Oeste necessary for the Willow Ridge development. In a Dec. 16, 2003 town council meeting, several citizens voiced concerns that the annexation would disrupt the rural setting of the area. Property owners in the area also had issues with the increased traffic that would come with the annexation. Four residents, Leon Drake, Jeanell Evans, Neil McHugh and Richard Hummer, filed suit against the town, claiming it had not followed necessary procedural requirements when annexing the area. A Pima County Superior Court judge ruled July 6 in favor of the town, but that decision is being appealed by the plaintiffs.
The town also rezoned about a third of that property, which is now subject to voter approval Sept. 7, to allow for the development. Of the 104-acre property, which was zoned to allow one home per 144,000 square feet, the town changed 61 acres to allow one residence per 6,000 square feet, 34 acres to allow one house per 16,000 square feet and just under 10 acres to allow commercial development.
Discouraged by the town's action, a group of residents living near the annexed property collected enough signatures to make the rezoning subject to voter approval.
Another group in opposition to the town's rezoning is the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection. The coalition has worked with Marana to direct growth to less environmentally sensitive areas and develop a wildlife corridor through the town to the Tortolita Mountains, protecting species such as the endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy owl. The rezoning does not reflect the efforts of the town and the coalition, according to a statement by the coalition's executive director Carolyn Campbell on the Proposition 400 ballot.
Reuwsaat pointed out that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved the town's rezoning of the property. Furthermore, the developer will contribute $5,000 per lot for environmental mitigation. Reuwsaat said this money can be used to purchase state trust land and increase the size of Tortolita Preserve, providing contiguous open space for the pygmy owl. McHugh, however, said the town's Tortolita Preserve expansion plan is conditional on an agreement with the state to sell trust land to Marana, which it has not yet done.
McHugh also had concerns that the development will increase traffic along Cortaro, disrupt the environment and create a safety issue. He said because the road will not be widened in front of Quail Run Elementary School, traffic will back up there and endanger children.
Reuwsaat said the town would not have allowed the development without considering children's safety. Furthermore, allowing for commercial development within the community at Willow Ridge can reduce the flow of traffic on Cortaro. The developer has made concessions with the town that demonstrate Willow Ridge is responsible growth, he said. The developer will contribute $10,035 per home that will go toward parks, open space preservation, schools and environmental mitigation. Also the conjunction of the development with the widening of Cortaro will facilitate water drainage in the area, and reduce the cost of widening the road from $12 million to just under $8 million, he said.
He said the town has a strong interest in the passage of Proposition 400 because town officials followed the democratic process and considered the needs of all Marana residents.
"I believe the town staff and the town council acted in the best interest of Marana," Reuwsaat said. "The quality of life through improvements in drainage, contribution to parks, environmental mitigation - I think the benefits are far greater for the residents of Marana of anything that may occur."
In contrast, those who disagree with the rezoning said the developers hold greater sway over town hall than Marana residents.
"I think Marana has made a sweetheart deal with developers to get this through, and at a certain point, you have to get up and fight," Lawrence said.