In a contentious special session of the Oro Valley Town Council Aug. 13, the council grudgingly approved the Beztak Companies' bid to develop an apartment complex and retail shops at the southeast corner of Lambert Lane and La Canada Drive. In a 4-0 vote, the council tacked on a laundry list of conditions to be met by the developer, including placement of $50,000 cash in an escrow account for safety improvements to be identified after construction of the project.
Councilmember Paula Abbott abstained from the vote. "This project is dangerous and I don't want to see a death," she said. "I don't want to be seen as helping it or hindering it." Abbott's concern focused on pedestrians crossing busy Lambert Lane to reach the Fry's shopping center across the street.
Interviewed by phone, Beztak representative Tom Tracy said he believes the company has adequately addressed all safety issues. "I understand Councilmember Abbott's concern," he said. "But we've spent a year and half reviewing traffic safety and flow with professional planners."
In the Wednesday night session, town engineer Bill Jansen told the mayor and council that the Beztak plan "was appropriate and handled pedestrian traffic very well."
Tracy said that the project has lost its financing because of "excruciating" delays over the past year. "The plan has been continued once by DRB and twice by the city council," he said. "It's a very expensive and complicated project, but it is our intent to build it. We've started to recontact lenders."
One of the project's architects, Mike Canright of Seaver Franks Architects, described the 138-unit apartment complex as a luxury development that will include 10 two- and three-story apartment buildings, a clubhouse, a pool and recreation area, and key-card entry.
"It's a big Motel 6," said Terry Parrish, 34, president of the Villages of La Cañada, a neighborhood association of 600 homes just south of the proposed development. "We were told it was going to be an upscale shopping center, and that's what we wanted."
Parrish said the neighborhood association granted Beztak an easement for that shopping center in 2001. But last October, "the plan started to change to an apartment complex. That's one of the reasons the community is upset." He said that more than 80 percent of homeowners in Villages of La Cañada have signed a petition protesting the project.
The three neighborhoods most affected by the development are the Villages at La Canada with 600 homes next door, Canada Hills with about 1,500 homes and Rancho Feliz with 200 homes.
"There are safety concerns that an apartment complex brings - a high density population, a transient population, increased crime, juveniles frequenting the area," said Parrish, a sergeant with the Pima County Sheriff's Department. "We also have concerns about the entrances and exits that will be shared by the apartment complex and commercial buildings surrounding the apartments. It's a huge safety problem."
Twenty-one years ago, a prior council approved mixed-commercial and residential use of the site. In an effort to revisit that zoning, the town sought an outside opinion from the Phoenix law firm Gallagher & Kennedy.
On July 29, the Phoenix firm agreed with a June 25 opinion issued by town attorney Mark Langlitz that the developer, Beztak Companies, was legally entitled to build 138 apartments on the 13-acre site.
At the special session Aug. 13, Gallagher & Kennedy land-use attorney Steven Betts told the council that in some instances, cities may revisit prior zoning, but only before the developer invests substantial finances or improvements in the property.
"It's a fairness issue," said Betts. "The courts look for you to be reasonable." In general, if a city has granted permits to a developer and the developer has spent money developing a project, the city cannot then turn around and "pull the rug out."
Abbott asked: "If a verbal commitment was made to residents, is it binding?"
Betts replied that the question lay outside his expertise, but generally, "courts don't like to look behind documents."
During the lengthy session, Abbott and Mayor Paul Loomis hammered project architect Michael Franks with questions about project details, eventually adding eight more conditions the developer will have to meet in order to go ahead (see box pg. 8). One of them was for the developer to place $50,000 cash in an escrow account for future safety improvements such as traffic lights.
Councilmember Dick Johnson, clearly exasperated with the proceedings, described the special session as "bureaucracy in motion."
At one point, town attorney Langlitz warned that because the submitted development plan complies with the planned area development zoning, "The council can certainly put on conditions, but it may have to defend them in court."
"This is a very serious matter as far as I'm concerned," said Councilmember Bart Rochman. The developer, he said, "has a right to build 138 units. They have a right to build three stories. I would like to see less but I don't think we can do that without putting the town at risk."
Calling the grueling session "just another irritant for everybody," Johnson said. "At some point people are responsible for their actions. We have a safety engineer (who) evaluates traffic safety and where he finds a deficiency he reports that. Now we have you (Loomis) as a traffic engineer."
Unfazed, the mayor responded, "This is the first development we've had with high-density apartments right next to a shopping center bordered by two four-lane roads."
Architect Franks agreed to most of the council's proposed conditions, but balked at changing the proposed three-story buildings to two-story buildings or redesigning the plan to change the traffic flow. "We've looked at this numerous times and we believe this is optimum for this site," he said.
BEZTAK DEVELOPMENT CONDITIONS
In approving the Beztak Properties development plan for apartments and commercial businesses at La Canada Drive and Lambert Lane during a special session Aug. 13, the town of Oro Valley approved existing conditions governing landscape, grading, drainage, lighting, gating and emergency access. It extended the date for perimeter landscaping to June 1, 2004 and added eight more conditions the developer must meet. These were:
€ Scrubbers and filters shall be installed on the venting outlets of all businesses preparing food to mitigate smoke, vapors and odors.
€ Mechanical equipment shall be screened from the surrounding communities (all levels) to the extent possible. Mechanical equipment screens shall be acoustically designed to prevent noise from extending beyond the property boundaries to the extent possible.
€ The comprehensive sign package shall be revised to include signage for the development. The revised sign package shall be reviewed and approved by the DRB and the town council.
€ The rip rap for slopes and for a detention basin and spillway shall use local rock and other materials that, combined with revegetation of the basin, create a natural look.
€ All items identified in the council communication dated Aug. 6 as done or complete shall be reviewed to verify that they are still applicable to the new development plan and if necessary, added as conditions.
€ Improvements to the water site to screen the well and reservoir will be added to screen it both visually and acoustically.
€ Gates and walls will be added to separate the apartments from the commercial pieces.
€ Developer shall deposit $50,000 cash in escrow for any safety improvements, if needed with any interest to stay in the escrow account to add to the $50,000. Any funds not used for the improvements to be returned to the developer. The escrow account shall be established when the first building permit is pulled.