Oro Valley annexation

Oro Valley’s Planning Manager Bayer Vella talks to disgruntled residents about the inevitability of the state land in their backyard being auctioned to developers.

Danyelle Khmara

About 120 locals, including members of the newly formed opposition group Save the Cactus, gathered for the second time on Aug. 21 to discuss the possibility of Oro Valley annexing a two plots of State Trust land. 

Most residents at the meeting, held in the Oro Valley Council Chambers, don’t want the land to be developed at all, but selling the land to the highest bidder is an inevitability written into the Arizona Constitution. One woman swore at town officials, and another suggested everyone boycott Oro Valley stores in protest. People who paid a lot premium on their houses to live next to the undeveloped state land, currently a part of unincorporated Pima County, are especially upset. 

The 321-acre plot of open desert at the northwest intersection of West Tangerine Road and North Coyote Crossing Trail abuts Oro Valley to the east and Marana to the west. Oro Valley is in discussion with Arizona State Land Department about this plot, as well as a 550-acre parcel south of Tangerine.

Carolyn Oberholtzer, legal counsel for the State Land Department in land use matters, explained to the crowd that when Arizona received statehood in 1912, the federal government set aside State Trust land to be sold for future development to benefit designated beneficiaries, in this case K-12 education. 

“The State Trust is a trust, just like if you want to leave property to your children in a trust,” Oberholtzer said. “They are the beneficiaries. You set up rules in that document, and you have to live by them or you’re in breach of that fiduciary duty. The State Trust Land Department has that duty to its beneficiaries. So if the land is developable, it must pursue the highest and best use for that land value.” 

She also said it’s not unheard of for someone to buy State Land and choose to preserve it. The only way for anyone to acquire the land is by being the most successful bidder when the land goes to auction.

“There’s nothing that restricts anyone in this room from purchasing the land,” Oberholtzer said.

There was a silver lining for locals whose homes abut the land and want their backyards to remain pristine desert. Over 100 acres on the south and west sides of the northern property are owned by the Tangerine Crossing Homeowners Association. Oberholtzer said that unless the HOA changes its rules, those houses will have an undeveloped buffer zone.

Oberholtzer added that there is no eminent development, only that long-range plans are being developed. Oro Valley is not the only entity to bring the property into its general plan, as Marana and Pima County have already done so. 

“It’s not as though this land is new to long-range planning documents,” she said. “It’s in Pima County’s. It’s in Marana’s. All we’re doing is adding a third one to the mix, which is Oro Valley.”

In Pima County’s plan, the land is designated as “low-intensity urban.” In Marana’s plan, it’s designated as “low-density residential,” which allows 150 to 600 homes plus commercial development. 

Oro Valley won’t decide how many housing units it would zone for the land until State Land develops a proposal. Density will be discussed in upcoming meetings regarding annexation and rezoning.

“We want to assure a good design that’s compatible with Oro Valley standards,” said Roosevelt Arellano, the town’s senior planner, at the meeting. “Something that we’re used to in our community.” 

Some of the ways the town plans to manage growth is by maintaining views of the Catalina Mountains, preserving wildlife corridors and planning for long-term conservation, in line with Oro Valley’s existing conservation-regulation code.

In current drought conditions, Oro Valley is able to maintain its current developments, plus more housing units within the current town boundary and an additional 4,000 homes for 100 years, through a mix of ground water, Central Arizona Project water and reclaimed water, said Peter Abraham, the town’s water utility director. 

He added that the water supply for that area would mostly be from renewable water resources rather than groundwater, therefore it shouldn’t affect private wells.

One local who spoke at the meeting got some laughs when he voiced that he’d rather the property not incorporate into Oro Valley.

“It is as though I crawled over the wall into my neighbor’s yard, stood at their dining room window, saw what was on their television, and said, ‘I have a legitimate interest in telling you what should be on your TV,’” he said “As a resident of the area, personally, I want to stay under Pima County. I don’t want Oro Valley taking over this land.”

Ultimately, it is not up to Oro Valley, Marana or Pima County. Whoever buys the property will decide where they want to annex. But from a utility standpoint, Oro Valley makes sense because of the proximity, Oberholtzer said. 

There is no current plan as to when the land will go to auction, as there is still 9.2 million acres still in the trust. 

“Land has to be very special to go to auction,” Oberholtzer said. “There’s a variety of factors and it’s ultimately at the discretion of the State Land commissioner.”

There are four more meetings planned to discuss the annexation. On Sept. 18, the town will hold a third neighborhood meeting (location not determined by print deadline). On Oct. 3 and Nov. 8, Planning and Zoning Commission hearings will take place at council chambers, 11000 N. La Cañada Drive, where recommendations are made. On Dec. 6, there will be a Town Council meeting.

There were a few Town Council members at the meeting, but the council is not yet taking a stand on what they would like to see happen with the land. Councilmember Rhonda Piña said she would like the open dialog to continue. 

“This is a process, so we want to continue to keep it a very positive process with public input,” she said.

Read this story and more online at tucsonlocalmedia.com.

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