The Oro Valley Town Council has bounced the Beztak Companies' request to build 138 two and three-story apartments and 31,000 square feet of commercial space at the southeast corner of Lambert Lane and La Canada Drive back into the laps of developers and town staff. The request was continued June 25 to the council's Aug. 6 meeting.

Staff was asked at the council's nearly five-hour meeting attended by more than 120 people to: obtain a confirming opinion on the legality of a mixed use development that would allow apartments and retail uses on the 13-acre site; re-examine the developer's grading plans in terms of height differentials on the south side; review Beztak's rationale for substituting wrought iron fencing for a wall on the east side; determine whether there will be an excessive overlapping of parking with the Osco drugstore at that site; and determine the impact the development will have on the Amphitheater Public Schools district.

Beztak, which has already reduced two of its proposed 10 buildings from three to two stories, is being asked to reduce two other buildings to two stories. The company also is being asked to explain why it isn't including elevators in its three story buildings when a major portion of its target market will be seniors citizens.

The council also raised concerns about shared exits and entries for residential and commercial uses and posed questions as to what Beztak has included and excluded in its latest proposal compared to previous development plans.

Beztak has been trying to develop the property for nearly four years since receiving a grading exception from the Town Council in 1999 and subsequent approval in 2000 of a development plan calling for nearly 116,000 square feet of commercial development. The company turned to apartment development last summer when it was unable to attract a tenant for a 50,000 square foot anchor store. By that time, its grading permit had expired.

Over the past several months the town's Development Review Board has denied or continued Beztak's requests for grading exceptions and approval of development, landscaping and architectural plans. The DRB's actions included denial in January of a grading waiver that would have allowed Beztak to level a controversial hill and a rejection of development plans in May of this year.

The Town Council overrode the DRB March 5 and approved the grading exception to level the hill on a split 3-2 vote with Councilmembers Dick Johnson, Bart Rochman and Vice Mayor Werner Wolff in favor and Mayor Paul Loomis and Councilmember Paula Abbott opposed.

Beztak's latest development plan came before the council with a DRB recommendation that it be denied. The board's May denial of Beztak's architecture plans also is being appealed to the council. Town planners recommended approval of Beztak's latest proposal

Critics have argued that the mix of apartments ranging from 787 to 1,281 square feet and commercial uses including shops totaling more than 27,000 square feet and a 6,000 square-foot restaurant, shouldn't be allowed as a part of a El Conquistador Country Club planned area development because the apartments make it incompatible with surrounding residential uses, the project doesn't properly separate residential from commercial areas, poses unacceptable risks because of increased traffic and the site is too small for what is being planned.

Michael Franks of Seaver-Franks Architects, representing Beztak, told the council that despite critical comments to the contrary, the developer has tried to be sensitive to residents' concerns. "While I would be kidding you to say all meetings with residents have been friendly - some have been very contentious, the result has been a much better plan," Franks told the council.

Improvements include providing more open space and landscaping than required, reducing the visual impact of apartments on the perimeter, lowering building elevations, doubling setback distances in some areas and reducing densities in what initially was planned to be a project totally made up of three-story buildings.

Some residents are still angry about Beztak's earlier claims before the DRB that its project was supported by a majority of area residents and charge that Beztak "blatantly lied" in that regard.

In response to Beztak's claim and the affirmation by Town Attorney Mark Langlitz that the developer is legally entitled to develop apartments on the site based on actions taken by the Town Council 20 years ago, former Councilmember Fran LaSala argued that just because the developer may have the legal right to develop, it didn't mean they had to do so irresponsibly.

"This is a terrible project, a terrible plan based on a terrible lie," LaSala said."I don't know how many ways I can say it." LaSala urged the council to reject the development and send the message that "this town is not about crap."

LaSala was one of eight speakers who stood to oppose the Beztak plan. Among the opponents were residents of the Autumn Hills, Villages of La Canada and Canada Hills Estates homeowner associations.

Conny Culver, representing the Autumn Hills HOA, told the council she was "appalled" by the developer's "blatant lack of sensitivity" toward residents' wishes. Responding to concessions expressed by Beztak to address residents' traffic safety concerns, Culver said they merely represented "a compromise we don't have to make."

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