As a steady parade of Catalinans stepped to the microphone to rail against the High Mesa development at the Feb. 25 meeting of the Pima County Planning and Zoning Commission, a nine-inch thick binder of protest letters sat heavily on the dais - a testament to the grassroots movement that has emerged to try and slow the growth of the rural community north of Oro Valley.
The commission took the wave of protest to heart, voting 6-1 to recommend denying a rezoning request by the developers who seek to place a 498-home project amid the wildcat subdivisions of Catalina. The developers have also offered to donate 40-acres of land for a host of social services as enticement for the community's support.
The commission's decision prompted applause and hugs among opponents in the standing-room only crowd. Later that day a baseball-like scoreboard appeared on www.savecatalina.com, the Web site that has become the rallying ground for opposition to High Mesa. The scoreboard showed the neighbors were leading the developers, but the game was only in the first inning.
"This is just the beginning," said Mark Kendall, the sole member of the Greater Catalina/Golder Ranch Village Council opposed to High Mesa and a key member of Save Catalina, the vocal, well organized group that has emerged to battle the development. "But I think Save Catalina is going to continue to be a force well after the High Mesa debate has ended."
Ultimate approval of the rezoning request by Black Horse Advisors, LLC, lies with the Pima County Board of Supervisors which is expected to consider the matter in April. The number of protests by adjacent property owners has triggered a requirement of a super majority vote by the board in order for the rezoning to be approved.
The 190-acre proposed project lies on two tracts of vacant land in an established neighborhood of large-lot horse properties and mobile homes east of Oracle Road between East Hawser Street, North Columbus Boulevard and disected by East Mainsail Boulevard. The rezoning seeks to change housing densities from the current 1-acre lots to lot sizes ranging from 5,400-square feet to 14,000 square feet.
Coming as other master planned developments expected to add about 1,400 homes are just beginning to rise in Catalina, the High Mesa project has polarized the unincorporated community between those who say they want to maintain their rural lifestyles and those who say the deal is too good to turn down.
Chris Sheafe and Mike Carlier, the principals of Black Horse Advisors, have offered to donate 40-acres of vacant desert where Pima County could build a community center, park and library and relocate a sheriff's department substation and health clinic if their project is approved.
The project would generate an estimated $2 million in impact fees for the county. The developers are also offering Amphitheater Public Schools a 15-acre parcel of land for a new school and a $295 per home built "donation" to sweeten the pot.
Amphi officials have expressed support for the project, as has the county's planning, parks and transportation departments. Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry sent a memo to supervisors earlier this month saying High Mesa is a good example of "in-fill" development that preserves the surrounding desert.
Most of the Greater Catalina Council - a quasi-governmental body that makes recommendations to the county - have voiced support for the project.
"We need these social services in Catalina," said Jan Johnson, chair of the council, in an interview after the planning and zoning meeting. "And this development is the way we can get them. It basically comes down to what's in the community's best interest."
Johnson, most of the council and the developers have claimed a small group of self-interested neighbors who live on property bordering the proposed development are trying to thwart a project that benefits all of Catalina.
"I think this is a fascinating question for a rezoning," Sheafe, the developer, told the commission "It really puts in perspective the issue of overall community benefit against the desires of a very vigorous group of people who live close to the property … we've worked very hard to be as considerate as possible of the immediate neighborhood concerns while at the same time trying to maintain the contributions to the community that the evidence shows is (are) badly needed up there."
Johnson presented the results of a survey by the Catalina Council that found 85 people who responded were in favor of High Mesa and 178 were against it. Members of Save Catalina claimed the survey questions were crafted in a fashion that highlighted the land donation that would result in more social services facilities in the community.
Johnson also read a letter to the commission the majority of the Catalina Council had drafted and sent to Pima County earlier in the week. The letter claimed Save Catalina was "trying to win by intimidation" and "inciting residents by giving them inaccurate information" and asked the commission to approve the rezoning.
The letter ignited a fire storm of debate at a meeting of the Catalina Council held the night before the commission hearing, after residents obtained a copy of the three-page letter from Pima County. Many of the 45 people in attendance at the meeting jeered and claimed the Council no longer represented the opinions of the vast majority of Catalinans.
In response to Sheafe and Johnson's comment at the planning and zoning hearing, many of the 70 people who asked to address the commission pointed out they did not live adjacent to the project but opposed the development.
The complaints and concerns aired during the more than four hours it took to complete the hearing ranged from concerns about overcrowded schools and possible busing; a falling water table and the effect the development would have on private wells; increased traffic on Catalina's narrow, winding roads; increased drainage problem in a community ravaged by flooding last summer and rising property taxes.
Only a handful of people, mostly members of the Catalina Council, spoke in favor of the project.
A common refrain voiced by many of the opponents was that they simply did not want to lose their rural lifestyles to the dense blocks of homes they said the new development would bring.
Armando Membrila, a commission member who voted against recommending approval of the rezoning, said after the hearing he felt the timing was not right for a project like High Mesa to hit Catalina.
"It's all about timing. There's going to be growth out there at some point and time, but this may not be the time, judging from such opposition," Membrila said. "The residents clearly brought out that they have a rural aspect and would like to keep it. But these people still need the services, so it's a hard choice they're facing."