No better understanding of a fast-growing town's struggle to shape its future can be had than to follow its residents as they go about revising a General Plan.

Oro Valley is a classic case in point.

The effort has been going on for more than a year now. Open forums have been held, citizen committees have been working overtime and questionnaires have been sent out to anyone with even an inkling of interest in helping define the kind of town Oro Valley will be in 20 years.

The town has spent nearly $300,000 implementing a Pubic Participation Action Plan to elicit residents' involvement in updating its General Plan to comply with state enacted Growing Smarter legislation in 1998 and 2000 that established a series of new requirements for the preparation and adoption of new general plans.

The process of updating the town's 1996 General Plan is also intended to provide the community with an opportunity to re-examine basic policy commitments made six years ago to determine if they still address the needs of the community.

This process is in its final stages now with hearings before the Planning and Zoning Commission still under way. Soon the Town Council will be deciding whether to put its stamp of approval on a new General Plan. Voters were to have their say in a March election but that date may be pushed forward for a second time due to recent changes in the state's Growing Smarter election deadline requirements. May is now being considered as a more realistic election date.

Paperwork generated by this process is already two-feet high. More than 900 written comments have been processed in the last three months alone, said Bryant Nodine, Oro Valley planning and zoning administrator, adding that Oro Valley's citizen participation effort has been generally regarded as one of the best such efforts in the state, if not the nation.

It's been a slow, frequently fractious, grind- it- out process of data accumulation and community comment in putting together policies and action plans that in their present form dare to lay the groundwork for addressing the needs and wishes of more than 53,000 people by the year 2020.

That population figure is based on a 19-member steering committee's decision to recommend eventual adoption by the Town Council and residents' ratification of a General Plan that calls for an implementation of the most conservative of three growth alternatives.

The alternative chosen emerged from a lengthy citizen participation process and was seen as representing what a majority of Oro Valley residents felt was the means by which their vision for Oro Valley in 2020 could be best fulfilled.

In the early going, residents were presented with five different land use map alternatives. Those alternatives included retaining existing land uses, emphasizing a mixed use clustering approach, land uses that would retain Oro Valley as a bedroom community, land uses emphasizing environmental protection and another with a stress on fiscal services.

Citizens expanded that list to eight alternatives. That has since been narrowed to three, representing the interests of 23 developers, the recommendations of town staff and those of the steering committee.

Illustrative of how conservative the growth estimate that serves as a basis for the recommended plan is, Oro Valley has grown from just under 20,000 residents in 1996 to 32,000 residents today, an increase of about 12,000 in five years, or 2,400 a year. According to current projections, the pace of the town's population growth will slow to less than half that over the next 20 years.

This conservative forecast, one even the town's planners are having trouble justifying, also calls for nearly 10,000 new dwelling units to be built in this span, or an average of 500 a year, that will bring the total to more than 25,000 by 2020.

By that time, too, commercial square footage, including both retail and office space, is expected to increase by nearly 6.3 million square feet to 8 million square feet, producing nearly 17,000 new jobs and more than quadrupling the current work force, while the number of hotel rooms is predicted to triple from more than 500 rooms currently to more than 1,600 by 2020.

These figures include what would be brought into the town through annexation.

Over the next 20 years Oro Valley's planning area is expected to more than double in size to nearly 66 square miles from its present 32 square miles if all its targeted annexation areas, excluding the Tortolita Mountains, are brought into the town by then. In 1996 Oro Valley covered 26 square miles.

How the town digests these numbers to formulate a General Plan will determine how much of an impact that plan will have on residents' lives far beyond 2020.

In a draft of the General Plan under review, the steering committee has included a statement of policy that reads:

"The purpose of the plan is to provide basic direction and guidance to all elected and appointed officials and employees of the town in their decision-making process. We intend that the plan be followed and consistently applied unless and until conditions in the community have changed to the extent that the plan requires amendment or modification."

Oro Valley's vision for the future, as described in the committee's recommended statement of policy is to "be a well-planned community that uses its resources to balance the needs of today against the potential impacts to future generations. Oro Valley's lifestyle is defined by the highest standard of environmental integrity, education, infrastructure, services and public safety. It is a community of people working together to create the town's future with a government that is responsive to residents and ensures the long-term financial stability of the town."

Whether voters approve or reject the General Plan they're presented may come down to the degree of importance they attach to it and whether claims that the plan represents the wishes of a majority of the town residents have any credibility, participants in the process agree.

At the crux of citizen acceptance or rejection of the eventual updated General Plan is whether residents accept the plan's ultimate growth philosophy and whether they can be convinced town leaders will show a commitment to that philosophy in their votes, says Bill Adler, Board of Adjustment Vice Chairman.

Adler has been a leading critic of the plan and the role town planners have played in shaping it.

"Town staff has influenced the General Plan updating process by promoting their ideas and withholding information necessary to informed decision making," Adler said.

By making recommendations, Adler has argued, the town's planners abdicate their role as neutral participants and become marketers of their own ideas and in that marketing, apply an undue influence on Planning and Zoning Commission and Town Council members and remove themselves as advocators of the public.

Commissioners argue they're just volunteers and haven't the time to do the research required of a General Plan update and so must rely on staff recommendations.

"As stated, the goals outlined in the plan are meaningless,” said Adler. "Goals are in fact quantifiable and time dependent and are more than suggestions of specific actions for achievement. A policy represents an expectation by citizens of actions the town will take to reach a desired objective. If definitions are not made to be consistent with citizen expectations, then the mission statement of the General Plan is hypocrisy, as is, in fact, the entire plan," he said.

"Although the process was unduly long and complicated, I think the plan that came out of the steering committee's recommendations is one that will best fit the community's needs," said Melanie Larson, Northwest EXPLORER publisher and steering committee member.

"We considered the input we received from a wide range of interests, evaluated it, and what we came up with, I think, was a fiscally responsive and innovative plan, one that serves as a guideline, that isn't set in stone and has the flexibility to adjust to new opportunities and challenges as the community expands," Larson said.

The General Plan is comprised of 13 elements addressing the following issues: land use, community design, economic development, cost of development, transportation, public facilities, services and safety, housing, parks and recreation, arts and culture, archaeological and historic resources, open space and natural resource conservation, water resources and environmental planning.

Stripped of all the planning jargonese, what's a new General Plan going to mean to the average resident? The impacts are far too broad to enumerate in detail, but start with the pocketbook.

Consultants predict that implementing the steering committee's recommended General Plan will produce a cumulative net budget surplus of $141.3 million by 2020. Projected revenues would exceed expenses by approximately $3 million in the first year, growing to nearly $14 million in the final year.

Those figures would seem to indicate a long period of economic stability for the town, freedom from juggling funding for various programs because of potential budget deficits and having to impose new taxes to finance new programs and services, thus allowing residents to keep more money in their wallets.

"One of the most important things a General Plan can do is to tie that plan to capital improvements and the town's annual budget," say consultants. The General Plan being revised attempts to do so, but how reliable are those figures? As the General Plan revision goes through the final stages of approval before being presented to voters will it be changed so much that those projections lose their credibility?

Excluded from the income projections, as an example, are any costs related to the improvements residents want made at the 213-acre Naranja Town Site on the north side of Naranja Drive and east of La Canada Drive. Residents have said they want ballfields and swimming pools, an auditorium and amphitheater and many other amenities at this future park site at a cost of between $50 million and $80 million.

Timing of the improvements and a funding schedule have not been determined and consultants say revisions to anticipated budget surpluses "could have a particularly large impact on the town's projected fiscal performance over the next 20 years, resulting in significant increases to the projected annual and cumulative net revenues vs. earlier draft projections."

The recommended General Plan also places a heavy emphasis on open space but no estimate has been made of the cost to the town of purchasing these lands from private owners, the state or federal government.

In another area, proposed land use maps detail areas recommended for density changes over the next 20 years. Between 10 percent and 15 percent of the Oro Valley planning area would be subject to those changes.

Incorporating those proposed land use changes into planned improvements for roads, parks, trails, transportation, how would they affect the average citizen and developers?

"If I were Mr. or Mrs. Smith I'd certainly want to know if I was going to have 100,000 new neighbors or 50,000 and whether the town will have the resources such as water and roads to handle such projections," said Ken Kinared, Planning and Zoning Commission member.

The General Plan will tell us when and where and how much, in terms of growth and outline what must be done to accommodate that growth, Kinared said. "It's a plan for the whole town."

Will you still have your mountain views? Will you be looking at open spaces or apartment complexes outside your living room window? Will housing prices soar because of the premium placed on preserving open spaces? Will developers be pressured to put shopping centers and office complexes next door to you because road improvements will increase traffic volumes and eliminate homes on three-acre sites as a viable economic alternative?

Will you be doing your shopping a block away or a mile away? Will there be a serviceable transit system you can rely on?

Land use maps now being developed are already being challenged. Twenty-three developers have asked the Planning and Zoning Commission to amend land use designations called for in those maps. The town's planners appear to be leaning toward permitting higher densities than those recommended by the steering committee, a move that some see as flying in the face of the steering committee's recommendations and in turn, the public at large, which has indicated its preference to keep Oro Valley a bedroom community.

Changes will be made to these maps to correct errors and other changes may be recommended to the Town Council as a result of these pleadings.

But allowing developers and landowners to come before the Planning and Zoning Commission to plead for land uses critics Adler views as entirely inappropriate.

The town invited developers and landowners to make such requests when the General Plan was being revived in 1996 because the General Plan at that time had no amendment procedures, Adler said. Now that it has such a procedure, Adler argues, these special interests should be going through procedures established in the 1996 General Plan to make the changes in land uses they want.

The General Plan is a complex document in many aspects. There are terms such as "New Urbanism" and "mixed use neighborhood," a new land use designation referring to a mixture of commercial and residential uses, can be confusing.

The difference between a designated land use and zoning is often confusing as well. Zoning refers more to an owner's right to use land in a certain way. The land use designations that are part of the General Plan refer more to the densities that will be allowed within a certain land use category.

Though challenging at times, it's critical residents get involved in the shaping of the General Plan rather than waking up one day and finding some project next door they don't want. It's more than a pocketbook issue. It's a matter of determining the kind of town you want Oro Valley to be, those involved in the process agree.

At a meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission not too many months ago, there were nine people in attendance. They included Mayor Paul Loomis, Town Manager Chuck Sweet and Community Development Director Brent Sinclair.

Also present were Charlie Hulsey, director of planning and landscape architecture for the WLB Group, and Dick Maes, Vistoso Partners general manager, representatives of some of the largest existing and proposed land developments in the area.

There were no avid environmentalists at the meeting, nor were there any representatives of that undefined mass known as the average citizen. Guess whose voice was heard.

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