Oro Valley's continued annexation of a 655-acre area flanking Magee and Oracle roads may hinge on two crucial signatures. In a July 29 preliminary ruling, a Pima County Superior Court judge voided Oro Valley's Area B annexation because the town failed to show it had signatures from more than half of area residents. A final ruling will be made Aug. 19.
"We're disappointed but not discouraged," by the preliminary ruling, said Oro Valley Town Attorney Mark Langlitz. "We think the court erred in calculating the figures."
After a yearlong petition drive, the town annexed Area B May 7 and began providing police and public works services. Bounded by Northern Avenue on the west, First Avenue on the east and Suffolk Drive on the south, the area includes Plaza Escondida and La Entrada shopping centers and key commercial areas on both sides of Oracle and Magee roads. The region has 627 property owners and an assessed property value of $16.3 million.
Area B resident Philip Richardson, who petitioned the court to void the annexation, said, "We're encouraged by the fact that there has been a tentative favorable finding, but it is not final." Richardson and his wife Shirley challenged the annexation May 6, the last day of a 30-day public comment period, because they believed the process was rife with errors and the town improperly obtained petition signatures.
Superior Court Judge Carmine Cornelio threw out all but two of 10 allegations brought by Richardson, disallowing 22.5 of Oro Valley's 334.25 signatures. The court invalidated 14.5 signatures because the wrong legal description was attached to the petition and eight signatures filed on April 4, one day beyond the legal limit, according to the court.
"There were two drives going on at the same time - Area A and Area B, said Langlitz. "A blank petition for Area B erroneously included an Area A legal description. So it was the wrong legal description but the correct map."
"People mixed up their copies," said Oro Valley special projects coordinator Scott Nelson, part of the team that led the annexation effort. "It was near the end of the process, and even though we did an audit on almost everything, that stuff that came in at the last minute didn't get caught."
"The discrepancy between the Area A legal description and the area to be annexed is not minor," the judge noted in his ruling. "Signers may or could have been misled by the erroneous legal description."
The court concluded, "Oro Valley has obtained 311.75 valid petition signatures, representing $9,851,191, supporting the annexation of Area B." By Arizona statute, the town is required to obtain signatures from more than half of the area's property owners, or more than 313.5 valid signatures. The town "failed to meet this requirement."
Langlitz said that, on July 18, the judge directed both parties to get together and reconcile the signatures. The Oro Valley attorney said that he and Richardson's attorney, Howard Baldwin, both agreed that, instead of the 14.5 signatures, there were only 12.5 signatures with the wrong legal description. "When both sides got together to reconcile the numbers, the 14.5 got reduced down to 12.5." Baldwin declined to comment while the case is still pending.
In calculating the number of signatures with the wrong legal description, the judge used the 14.5 figure. If the judge confirms the error, the town has the two signatures it needs, said Langlitz.
"Right now, the preliminary ruling has no effect on annexation," he added. "We're continuing to provide services. If the judge vacates the annexation we would ask for a stay, which would keep the annexation in effect pending an appeal." Both sides have until Aug. 12 to file objections or corrections.
As for the eight disallowed signatures the judge said were filed late, the town attorney said Oro Valley stands by the date of Aug. 4, 2003 as a year from the date the town was first able to obtain petition signatures, Aug. 4, 2002.
Richardson, a past-president and current board member of the homeowners association for Suffolk Hills, a neighborhood included in the annexation, said he became more and more disturbed about the annexation after hearing of "inappropriate and untoward" promises made to some residents by Oro Valley police who gathered petition signatures.
Alice Scott, a 32-year resident of Suffolk Hills, who came to the area before Oro Valley became incorporated, said that police insinuated that they would do whatever it took to get her to sign the petition. "We were talking and I said that if we were annexed, I hoped they would take up those speed bumps on Magee," she said. "He led me to believe that if we were annexed the speed bumps would be removed.
"They want to eat up the whole area," she said. "Oro Valley is a nouveau riche gazillionaire who doesn't have enough money and doesn't know how to handle money. They want millions for roads and for this and for that. That's not what Oro Valley is supposed to be. This will turn out to be dreadful."
At a May 5 board meeting of the Suffolk Hills Property Owners Association, Richardson convinced the rest of the board in a 5-4 vote with two members absent to contribute $2,000 to his lawsuit against Oro Valley. A check was then presented to Richardson at the board's June 6 meeting.
SHPOA President James P. Needham said the $2,000 was a "grant," that Richardson has promised to pay back. He said the board was and is neutral on the issue, but Richardson's explanation of the inconsistencies convinced a majority that it was worth committing the money to make sure that the annexation was legal.
Retired engineer Leonard Lane, who's lived in Suffolk Hills since 1984, chafes at the fact that his homeowners association contributed $2,000 to Richardson's lawsuit. He believes only a minority oppose annexation. "The most charitable thing I can say is that they probably think it's going to raise their taxes," he said. "But if it's not Oro Valley it will be Tucson or Marana or someone else. We'll get better service and representation from Oro Valley. The city of Tucson doesn't care about a small neighborhood like this."
Oro Valley finance director David Andrews estimated that the annexed area will add $700,000 a year to town coffers from a new 2 percent sales tax and state shared revenue. The sales tax does not apply to services or food purchased in grocery stores. It does apply to restaurants and other retail businesses. Andrews said he didn't know what might happen to the sales tax already collected if the annexation is permanently voided.
Another example of Oro Valley's actions during the annexation drive that prompted Richardson to challenge the town was an offer of a sales tax break in exchange for a signature made to real estate appraiser John Martell, of Martell & Associates, owner of the commercial Ridge View Plaza, 190 W. Magee Road, a property worth $700,000.
Martell said that Jeff Weir, Oro Valley's economic development director, offered him a deal enabling his tenant, auto broker Rick Snider, to avoid the 2 percent sales tax for a minimum of five years if Martell would sign the annexation petition.
"If you're buying a car, 2 percent of $30,000 is $600," said Martell. "I said it's going to hurt this guy if he has to start paying taxes."
The "deal" later fell apart. "I don't object to Oro Valley," he said. "It just bothers me the way they handled it."
Nelson, Oro Valley's special projects coordinator, confirmed that a council member had directed Weir to make a verbal agreement with Martell, but said the offer was later withdrawn. Martell never did sign the town's petition.
"When I came on board, I said 'How do you take one business and allow it to become tax exempt?'" Nelson said. "When the council wasn't willing to do it, I told John that unless there was a pre-annexation agreement signed off on by the mayor and council, it's similar to renting a space to a tenant without a lease."