If the Dec. 5 Oro Valley council session is anything like the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting last month, Town Council will have a lot of feedback to consider regarding the fate of Desert Springs.

Formerly known as Kelly Ranch, the 110-acre parcel currently located on Pima County land along the east side of Tangerine Road and Oracle Road adjacent to Catalina State Park, could undergo a major General Plan amendment that is causing a bit of a stir amongst residents and environmentalists.

Under Pima County’s existing zoning code, the area is slotted for a 44-acre resort, 47-acre suburban ranch, and 18-acre rural village center.

If, and when, Oro Valley annexes the property, the Town’s existing General Plan which would have gone into effect would modify the county’s plan to utilize 31 acres for neighborhood as commercial/ office, 24 acres for a resort and golf course, and 54 acres for low-density housing. 

The new proposed General Plan amendment, brought forth by property owner and California developer Sunchase Holdings, would eliminate the resort and golf course, replacing it with 60 acres of medium-density residential, which would allow the developer to build 2.1-5 houses per acre. 

With the amendment, low-density residential, which allows 1.3 to 2 units per acre, would be reduced to 13 acres of total space, 24 acres would be slated for neighborhood commercial/office, and 13 acres of open space would be introduced, largely along the ridgelines of the property.

Principle Planner Chad Daines argued the amendment is necessary to accommodate the growing economy near Desert Springs.

“There is sufficient demand in a three to five-year time frame for new residential given the proximity of Innovation Park and the retailing occurring along Oracle Road,” he said.

Though the most recent proposal by the developer showed a reduction in low-density residential units, the elimination of the golf course in exchange for housing results in a significant increase in total units on the property, going from 108 under the Town’s existing plan to a maximum of 250 units under the proposed amendment.

That fact hasn’t sat well with many residents, who in prior council and neighborhood meetings have raised concerns over an impedance of neighborhood views and lighting, historic preservation, impact on recreational experience, and wellbeing to area wildlife.

Bryan Martyn, Executive Director of Arizona State Parks, addressed some of the potential issues to come with the amendment in a letter to the Town.

“The proposed change to medium density residential will greatly increase the number of housing units visible from the park,” it reads. “This is further complicated by the elimination of the resort/golf course land, which would have provided a needed buffer to the park.”

Mayor Satish Hiremath, who said he initially disagreed with the General Plan amendment, is now reconsidering. 

“I think they’ve come to a fairly good compromise,” he said. “Do I want to see that entire area slated as a golf course? Not really. To me, I think if they can present a happy medium, where they have one house for every 3.3 acres closer to Catalina, medium density in the middle, and neighborhood/commercial on the outside, I think that would be a better fit than if it were a golf course, which will alter the site more than a lot of people think.”

According to Martyn’s letter, the dense housing as listed in the amendment could have an adverse effect on the dark skies of Catalina State Park. 

“The impact of lighting from a development with such intense density, as is proposed, would affect more than just the Park’s astronomy programs,” reads the letter. “Nocturnal and other animals in the park would experience changes in their behaviors due to the introduction of additional light at night to this area.”

The amendment could also impact such programs as the Institute for Desert Ecology, which takes advantage of the park’s natural setting for environmental educational opportunities.

James Cogswell, planner and archaeologist with the State Historic Preservation Office, recommended to staff that the site should be fully surveyed for cultural resources before development occurs.

“I found that the property has only been partially surveyed for cultural resources, he wrote in a letter to the Town’s Development Infrastructure Services Department. “The survey was conducted in 1997, and two prehistoric and one historic sites were identified…I recommend that a cultural resources survey be conducted of the entire subject property by a permitted archaeologist and that a report on this survey be submitted for review.”

Despite the obvious concerns over the parcel, council is bound to hear the developers’ proposal on Dec. 5, and Hiremath said his decision would be weighed carefully with the concerns of all parties involved.

“If we can create a safe haven for Catalina State Park while allowing the developer his rights, and also cater to our residents, that’s the best case solution,” he said. 

Hiremath hopes the Dec. 5 meeting serves as an educational opportunity as well.

“I don’t think residents understand that what they have the right to do now is put a golf course there, and I hope that message comes out loud and clear,” he said. “As mayor and a resident, I will look to see what they bring forward in the next meeting.”

Currently, the lot sits vacant with the exception of the historic Joesler House and a maintenance facility. 

Town Manager Greg Caton said the amendment must only be heard by council this calendar year, but no action is immediately required. He encouraged citizens to continue to voice concerns any concerns.

“Time and time again, input is a critical part of the project, and sometimes that means no project,” he said.

The amendment passed 4-3 at the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting.

The Dec. 5 council meeting takes place at Oro Valley Town Hall at 5 p.m. 

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