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Posted: Wednesday, May 15, 2002 11:00 pm

As the Naranja Town Site Master Plan Executive Committee approaches the task of combining two proposals for recreational and cultural uses for the 213-acre property, its members are also expressing fears of being drawn into a "political miasma."

What they fear is that suddenly they will be seen as the panel responsible for adding town buildings on the site even though those buildings were not considered a high priority by residents, and that they could be involved in introducing property taxes as a means of financing the projected $40 million or more cost of development.

The "blank canvas" that Oro Valley residents were to fill in by expressing their wishes for development of the site may not have been as blank as they had been led to believe and that led recently to a clearing of the air at a May 6 meeting of the executive committee and council.

Preliminary plans for the site east of the Copper Creek subdivision and west of the Monterra Hills and Monterra Knolls subdivisions called for the land, the site of the former CalMat of Arizona asphalt plant, to be set aside for a park, cultural center, performing arts center, amphitheater, ballfields, indoor and outdoor recreational activities, walking trails and public buildings.

Then the town decided to approach the site as if it were a "blank canvas" and give residents an opportunity to fill in those blanks.

Over the past year, 14 different concept plans have been formulated for the site's use, plans based on a widespread public participation process involving, among other things, design workshops and numerous public hearings conducted by a citizen's task force and Stantec, a consultant hired by the town. As part of the process, residents were asked to rank their desires for uses of the site.

Out of that process two proposals have emerged. Each would include walking trails, an amphitheater, performing arts center, community center, festival area, nature center, baseball, soccer and softball fields, tennis and basketball courts, a BMX and skate park, dog park, playground and park maintenance facility.

One proposal includes more parking than another, as well as a geodesic dome for the cultural arts center, and locates fields and courts over a broader area. There are also differences in what are regarded as buildable areas.

By next month, following further public participation, the two proposals will be meshed into one for review by the Naranja Town Site Master Plan Executive Committee, which will then make its recommendation to the council.

In residents' rankings of what they considered high priority uses for the site, proposals for locating town buildings on the property earned little support.

Now councilmembers are looking to fill in a blank of their own.

Councilmember Dick Johnson says the town needs about 15 acres at Naranja for the expansion of town facilities.

Assuming a "hat of fiscal responsibility" at a May 6 council study session, Johnson said it would be foolhardy for the town to try and secure property for as much as $50,000 an acre, if it could even be found in Oro Valley, when the town might be paying a million and a half dollars to allocate space for a dog run or dog park at Naranja.

"I'm not against dog runs, but at some point you have to say is that really fiscally responsible," Johnson said.

"One of the things that needs to be addressed, and we haven't as a council in my opinion, is that we place town facilities at this site," he said. "I know it's an emotional issue and a lot of people will be upset and so on and so forth. But when people look at it, they look at it from purely uses as recreational, cultural space. As councilmembers we have to look at the whole picture. Unless someone can show me an alternative, some space at that facility has to be allocated for possible expansion.

"I don't say it's for a gun range, I don't say it's for public works," Johnson said. "I don't know what to think right now. Until uses are determined, some of the annexation decisions are made to the south, what we will look like in terms of decentralization of our town facilities, you can't make that decision. But I would have to say we have to set aside some space for that potential."

Master Plan Executive Committee Chairman Don Chatfield, Primavera Builders executive director, said he and other panel members recognized early on that there was an interest on the part of some councilmembers to have public buildings at Naranja. This interest was addressed, he said, and the indication from the council was no, town facilities weren't a concern. Committee members were told to deal with Naranja as an open slate, to listen to citizens and what they want, he said.

"That's the plan we brought you," said Chatfield, former Oro Valley planning director from 1994 to 1998 and community development director from 1998 to 1999. "I'm concerned about the comments that the council at this point, really the 11th hour, is making and that they may feel the need to kind of sweep aside the public comment and say, 'By the way, here's something that we could have given you direction about earlier, but let's go back and take another look at it.' That would cause problems for me in this chair."

Chatfield said he was concerned the council seems intent on placing public buildings on the site regardless of public opinion, even when more appropriate sites may be available.

"I could not be a part of that process and if that's what you're asking me to do, I'd have to ask you to excuse me because I can't do it," Chatfield said.

"If you had come to us as a council in the beginning and said given the resources, given the projected town needs, you're going to plan this facility and make sure you leave 15 acres in a place that works for the town's facilities, I think we could have had a fair process and put it together," he said.

"The only adopted policy of the council was that the site was to be used as a park and that's the guidance we've taken. By leaving it open this way now I think we are in great danger of creating mistrust among our citizens," he said, adding that he wasn't sure the Naranja site was necessary to accommodate the town's future building needs.

John Wickham, another member of the executive committee, said Town Manager Chuck Sweet some time ago came forward, at the panel's request, with a plan calling for 15 acres to be set aside for town facilities at Naranja. The plan was not included in the final two options developed because citizens did not regard it as a high priority, he said.

But the executive committee did raise the issue of where such facilities might be located and there is a 12-acre site in the southeastern portion where a dog park is designated to go that could be used for such purposes, Wickham said.

"There are some push arounds that make some sense," Wickham said. "But it's a political decision. It's not a citizen's input decision that comes out of this committee to make that kind of an arbitrary put on.

"Does the council want us to come forward saying this is what the citizens and the consultant think is best given the terrain and the buildability on it or do you want us to come in and sort of play politics? I don't think you want that and we're not paid to do that," he said.

"That's why we put this on your shoulders, to get the politics out of this phase," Mayor Paul Loomis responded.

"But I'm sensing that you're putting some of it back on us," Wickham said. "Let's be clear. If that's what you want us to do, to come forward and say based on council guidance we must put town facilities in this place, OK. We'll do it. We'll figure out how to do it. The contractor can do it.

"If you want us to come forward and say this is how we think it ought to be phased in in the way of payment and development, we might be able to do that with some help. But beyond that, I don't think we're competent to come forward and say well, you've got a sales tax or you're going to have to go out and get people to donate money for this or that. That's beyond our competence."

Wickham said he was apprehensive about the possibility the executive committee would be asked to come forth with a property tax recommendation. Loomis said that would be left up to the council to address and the committee's sole role will be to take Naranja out of the concept stage and into the reality stage.

As part of this effort, Stantec will be preparing cost estimates that will likely include, projections on the costs of the infrastructure necessary to make the site usable and the average cost of the different athletic fields. Variables in those projections include how big the community center and amphitheater will be. A range of costs for each user group will be the toughest to develop, said Community Development Director Brent Sinclair.

Loomis told the committee members the council is aware of their concerns and assured them they wouldn't be left hanging. "We think you're on the right path," he said, but added he suspected there will be significant changes before the process is over.

"I'm not sure there aren't opportunities for other uses on the site as long as the high priorities of the town's residents aren't affected, said committee member Kit Donnelly. "There are probably only a few things that are being proposed that would be unacceptable to residents."

The Naranja Town Site Master plan task force is expected to present a single development plan to the executive committee by the end of May or early June. That plan is expected to represent a blending of the two current options, Chatfield said.

The executive committee is charged with bringing a final plan to the Town Council in July.

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