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Posted: Wednesday, March 12, 2003 12:00 am

A controversial hill on a 13-acre site at the southeast corner of Lambert Lane and La Canada Drive ought to be leveled to make room for apartments and commercial uses, the Oro Valley Town Council has decided.

On a 3 to 2 vote March 5, the council approved granting a grading exception to the Beztak Companies to level the remnant hill as a first step toward building 138 apartments and developing 31,000 square feet of retail space, including two shops and a restaurant in a commercial strip along Lambert and La Canada.

Voting in favor of the grading exception were Vice Mayor Dick Johnson and Councilmembers Werner Wolff and Bart Rochman. Opposed were Mayor Paul Loomis and Councilmember Paula Abbott.

The closeness of the vote was a mirror of audience views. Many of the opponents of the leveling among the 15 speakers addressing the council voiced their opposition not merely because of their affection for the hill, but because of what they deemed a questionable track record of broken promises made by Beztak dating back to 1999 that the hill would remain.

"Our biggest concern is what they're going to do after the grading in building the apartments," said Terry Parish. "It's an eyesore," Parish said of the hill, "but I'll take that eyesore over apartments and a flat hill any day."

Parish was critical of Beztak's previous promise to develop an upscale strip mall in exchange for grading and never fulfilling that promise. "If we can't trust them for what they should have done, why should we trust them now?" he said.

A representative of the Autumn Hills Homeowners Association charged Beztak "blatantly lied" to members of the town's Development Review Board in telling the board that residents in the area were in favor of the project and expressed concerns of the town being lied to again.

"Where can it be found in the Constitution, laws or precedents that citizens must respect passively the idea that land, regardless of ownership, carries with it the right to speculation and wealth, not withstanding the effects such rights might have on the general public interest," said Conny Culver.

"Don't turn your back on the citizens of Oro Valley or invalidate the decision of your Development Review Board," Culver urged the council.

Bill Adler, vice chairman of the Board of Adjustment, noted that since the developer had acknowledged the project can be completed without leveling the hill, granting an exception to the grading code was unnecessary.

"The applicant has said the grading exception is desirable to create a commercial opportunity," Adler said. "But enhancing commercial profitability is not one of the criteria" for granting an exception.

"It's not why we have exceptions to a grading ordinance, so that someone can make more money in Oro Valley," Adler said. "That's irrelevant, it's an off point and it's out of order."

Adler was also critical of Loomis allowing the developers to go on at length about the qualities of their proposed development after warning the audience that all comments would be restricted to discussion of just the grading exception, then "hammering" a speaker for doing just what the developer had done. "Let's see some fairness here, folks, " Adler said to the council.

Those in favor of leveling the hill pretty much followed the council majority view that any development on the site would be better than the dusty wasteland that exists, as long as it is properly monitored by the town.

The hill has been drastically reduced and is going to be disturbed even further with the widening of Lambert to four lanes in the 2006-2007 fiscal year and other improvements, Vice Mayor Johnson said, adding that everyone will be better off once the hill is gone and the town can begin addressing the issues in Beztak's development plan.

"Tear the thing down," one advocate urged. "After all, we're not talking about one of the seven wonders of Oro Valley here."

In approving the leveling of the hill, the council imposed a number of constraints. They included:

No grading by Beztak will be permitted until building permits and construction contracts are issued by the town for two commercial buildings fronting Lambert.

All building pads and interior infrastructure are to be developed in one phase.

A cash deposit toward paying the cost of underground utilities will be placed in an escrow account by Beztak prior to any grading.

All perimeter landscaping is to be installed by Jan. 1, 2004.

A five-foot berm is to be built along the Lambert frontage with trees planted atop the berm as a screen.

Buildings fronting Lambert and La Canada will be limited to one story.

The town's Development Review Board unanimously denied Beztak's grading request in January. The council's action March 5 was based on an appeal to the DRB denial.

Originally, Beztak had planned to develop the site as an upscale commercial project with shops, offices and a 50,000 square-foot grocery store as an anchor. The company said it turned to apartment development when it was unable to find a grocer tenant.

In other action, the council reviewed temporary arrangements being made to deal with a rash of traffic accidents at the intersection of First Avenue and Palisades Road that include the installation by Tucson Electric Power Co. of a dusk-to-dawn street light within 30 to 60 days and the installation of a permanent signal when road improvements are made in the 2004-2005 fiscal year. Other interim solutions and costs are to be presented to the council in April.

The council also voted to close Hidden Springs Drive at Klinger Canyon Drive and restrict left turns on Desert Fairways Drive at Desert Olive Drive and Salt Cedar Drive to curtail drive-through traffic in the area. Shorter routes to Interstate 10 and the south will be accomplished by a widening of Moore Road and an extension of La Canada from Tangerine to Moore roads and further north to Pebble Creek Drive.

After a four-hour meeting that adjourned at 11 p.m., the council reconvened at a special 4:30 p.m. session the next day during which it voted to reduce densities by about half on nearly 300 acres owned by Marana Vice Mayor Herb Kai and the Kai family at the southeast corner of First and Tangerine.

The density reductions are to be included in a draft of a new general plan to be presented to the council March 17. The plan is to be published April 9 and a public hearing is scheduled for May 15. Adoption of the plan and a call for election is set for June 4 and the election is scheduled for Nov. 4.

The council has designated the property to be developed as a master planned community to give it greater control over the project as it is built.

Under the current General Plan, nearly 600 housing units would be permitted. The council is proposing a maximum overall density of about 290 units and an as yet undetermined cap, an expansion of commercial development from 10 to 30 acres and rules restricting density transfers from certain areas. Changes from neighborhood commercial uses to mixed-use neighborhood uses that would allow apartments would be treated as major amendments and require voter approval, as would any change from a commercial designation.

Loomis noted that without a master planned community designation, the town would have a greater problem trying to control the way the project is developed. The designation carries with it much more stringent requirements than could be enforced with a typical rezoning.

Residents in the area who had been vehemently opposed to the higher densities and direction of proposed commercial development applauded the council's move.

Loomis, however, made it clear the council realized its approval might be short lived should the council stray.

"We all know you aren't going to take your eyes off this property, that you're not going away," the mayor told the residents. "We have opportunities here to work with developers and make this project even better than Rancho Vistoso."

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