Looking back at the abundance of Oro Valley citizens filling every chair, standing along the walls, and even peeking in from outside, Mayor Satish Hiremath took a moment to remind the capacity crowd, which was in attendance for one reason, “to please be polite and respectful.”

The preemptive statement was probably a wise one considering the very controversial nature of the proposed Major General Plan Amendment of Desert Springs, the 110-acre parcel located east of Oracle and Tangerine Road, opposite the Oro Valley Marketplace, and adjacent to Catalina State Park. 

After about five hours of presentations, council discussion, and an excess of citizen input, council decided it best to delay making a decision, voting unanimously for a continuance. 

Council was required only to hear the applicant’s proposal before the end of the year, but not to approve or deny the amendment. State law allows one Major General Plan Amendment per year.

Initially tabled in April by property owner and developer Sunchase Holdings, the Major General Plan Amendment calls for several zoning changes to Oro Valley’s existing General Plan.

Leading to the Dec. 5 meeting, the amendment underwent several changes based on previous council and citizen input. Still, the most recent proposal brought forth last week had citizens squirming in their seats. 

The property, formerly known as Kelly Ranch, currently rests on Pima County land, though Oro Valley has planned zoning for the area under its General Plan. 

Consequently, two zoning codes exist on the property: one through the Town, and one through Pima County. 

Under the county’s existing code, without an amendment, the land would be developed with a major resort (44 acres), rural village center (18 acres), and suburban ranch (47 acres).

The Town’s General Plan calls for neighborhood commercial/office (31 acres), a resort/golf course (24 acres), and low-density housing (54 acres, 1.3 – 2 units per acre). 

The applicants’ amendment would eliminate the golf course and plan for medium-density residential (60 acres, 2.1 – 5 units per acre), 24 acres of neighborhood commercial/office, 12 acres low-density residential, and 13 acres open space. 

A maximum of 108 units would be built under the Town’s existing plan, while up to 250 units could be constructed under the proposed amendment. 

The introduction of medium-density residential was a major concern for many of the residents who feared it would deter tourism from Catalina State Park, affect wildlife habits, and disturb the historic landmark. 

Still, Keri Silvyn, representative for Sunchase Holdings, argued on Wednesday that the amendment would be “less intense” in the environmentally sensitive area than the Town’s existing code, due to the elimination of the resort. She also claimed there is currently no market for a golf course or resort, and that the increase in residential units would compliment well any commercial buildings by increasing sales tax.

Councilman Bill Garner took particular issue with the latter statement, pointing out there is a decrease in commercial properties under the amended plan, and that the elimination of a resort also means no bed tax revenue. 

Regarding the effect the development would have on wildlife, council seemed fairly satisfied with the proposed amendment. 

“I believe there is sufficient crossing options for wildlife,” said Hiremath. “I feel comfortable this shouldn’t be a consideration, there is a plan to mitigate those animals around that area.”

More than 30 individuals registered to speak during public hearing.  

Carolyn Campbell of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection announced her support of neighborhood commercial development, but voiced disagreement with the developer that medium density residential would not affect wildlife movement, and instead proposed rural low-density housing. She also voiced concern over the size and locations of the buffers to the park.  

Bryan Martyn of Arizona State Parks asked council for a continuance, as the committee had not had a chance to extensively discuss the plan with the developer. 

Resident John Musolf argued that the Oro Valley Marketplace would better serve commercial sales in the area than the 24 acres of commercial proposed for Desert Springs.

Resident Janice Thomas asked council to consider implementing the lower spectrum of medium-density housing, at around two to three houses per acre.

Resident Jan Adams urged council, given the amount of input, to decline action, as council “could not consider all comments and vote in the same night.”

That is exactly what council would do.

Hiremath and other council members first reminded the audience that despite the numerous concerns and considerations, the Town would be better off annexing Desert Springs than not, as Pima County would otherwise control development decisions.

Silvyn, who openly expressed that the developer “wants to be in Oro Valley, and not Pima County,” asked council to help clarify the desired compromise for future purposes.

Councilman Joe Hornat asked the applicant to limit residential density, and move homes away from the southeastern border of the property.

Councilman Mike Zinkin said he would like to see a completed survey of the environmentally sensitive area to better determine the location and amount of development.

Councilman Brendan Burns said he did not feel the applicant had satisfied all the prerequisites to implement the amendment.

Snider’s decision for a continuance was based largely on the Arizona State Park’s request for more time, as well as issues with the housing density. 

Garner said he still supports a resort at the location, but said he would consider the amendment based on reduced residential density.

Council voted 7-0 to continue looking for a compromise in 2013. The amendment passed 4-3 with the Planning and Zoning Commission before going to council last week.

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