June 21, 2006 - At its June 21 meeting, the Oro Valley Town Council will consider committing $30,000 to a state study that will decide what to do with approximately 45 square miles of state land directly north of Oro Valley's borders.

The Arizona State Land Department invited the governments of affected areas to provide input during this process, and on June 12 the Oro Valley Town Council decided it would be a participant. Sarah More, Oro Valley planning and zoning commissioner, said the town will now consider whether to contribute $30,000 to help the state lands department conduct the study, which she estimates will cost about $200,000.

"The state didn't ask us for that much, but they asked us to participate financially, and that's how much we figured it would be," More said.

Ron Ruziska, director of the Arizona State Land Department's Tucson office, said his understaffed and under-funded department sometimes needs such contributions to do its job.

"It's not without precedent. Where we will get the funding is still being discussed," Ruziska said.

The study will help the state decide whether to sell the land or keep it in the state trust, said Brent Sinclair, Oro Valley community development director.

"Before any plans are made, the town and Pima and Pinal County will all be able to offer their input," Sinclair said. "The state is going to do a conceptual plan with or without us, and our decision was simply whether or not we would participate."

Sara More, Oro Valley planning and zoning commissioner, said the results of the study will tell the state whether now is the best time to sell off the land to developers and local governments.

"They are looking to make money for the trust and not release it until they make a good return on it," More said. "State trust land is set aside for the benefit of education. The money goes toward public schools."

A current draft of the area where the state will conduct its study consists of 45 square miles beginning at Oro Valley's northern border. Of that area, 33 square miles lie north of the Pinal County line. The town has identified the remaining 12 square miles south of the county line in its general plan for annexation.

Ruziska said his department is still considering the size and boundaries of the land that would be subject to the conceptual plan.

"The boundaries aren't set yet. We're now open to suggestions from local government as to where to set the boundaries," Ruziska said.

The state is required to complete its initial conceptual plan before the land is sold, which will begin in July but could last as long as two years, More said.

"After we go through the planning process, the state will have the option of auctioning the land," More said, adding that the town can only consider an annexation after the land is out of the state trust.

"We have to do what's in the town's best interest. Our current policy says that we won't annex land that's not already part of our general plan. The council would have to amend the general plan to annex anything more, and that's a fairly significant process," More said.

Still, 12 square miles would be a sizable addition to the town's 34 square miles and it has already been considered for a variety of uses.

"There's a wide-variety of uses for that land - both open space and development," said Paul Loomis, Oro Valley mayor. "We think the conceptual plan is a good idea because we expect significant growth for that land."

Ruziska said planning for the land's use is the essential component of the conceptual plan.

"The conceptual plan is a good starting point to identify agreed upon open space issues prior to subdivision development. The purpose is to identify land uses most appropriate," Ruziska said.

Nevertheless, Ruziska emphasized that the conceptual plan doesn't guarantee that a land auction will soon follow.

"We haven't really gotten that far. (Selling the land) is not even on our radar screen," Ruziska said.

Nicole Fyffe, executive assistant to the Pima County administrator, said the county is looking to spend bond money approved by voters in 1997 and 2004 to acquire some of the land for open space and preserve known wildlife corridors in the area.

Although the county wants 5,120 acres of the land set aside for conservation, the county intends to buy 2,560 acres near the Tortolita Mountain Park once the land becomes available, Fyffe said.

Those 2,560 acres were worth about $7 million in 2003, but Fyffe said she did not know what the land would be worth when the conceptual plan is complete. Still, she said the county had about $25 million in conservation funds left from the 1997 and 2004 bonds.

"Voters in 1997 and again in 2004 have said they want to conserve that land for open space, and we're committed to paying whatever it costs to purchase it," Fyffe said. "I think the (Oro Valley) general plan is fairly consistent with what we want."

Fyffe said that although she knows Oro Valley is considering providing funding to the state land department directly, the county only intends to make "in-kind" contributions, such as making its staff and services available to the state.

Ruziska said his department is eager to make that transaction with Pima County.

"We're hoping the state land trust will receive some of that bond money," Ruziska said.

While the state land department considers such factors as real estate markets and local infrastructure for development, Ruziska said this conceptual plan has been delayed primarily because his department hasn't paid much attention to Southern Arizona.

"In May of 2005, we opened our Tucson office to address planning issues that have been on the backburner for 10 to 15 years. Before we had an office here, with our lack of resources, it was always hard to address southern Arizona," Ruziska said.

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