Oro Valley officials reached a milestone along the road to annexation of 14-square miles of Arizona State Trust land north of town.

Planning and zoning commissioners last Tuesday gave their stamp of approval to a general plan amendment that likely could result in the incorporation of the undeveloped desert expanse.

The commissioners’ recommendation now goes to the town council, where elected officials would determine the future of annexation, the largest proposed expansion of Oro Valley in the town’s history.

In part, the plan that the commissioners approved involved the creation of special-area policies for the entirety of Arroyo Grande.

Any development of the area would fall under a raft of added regulations in addition to the town’s existing rules.

An important feature of the plan would make mandatory the completion of traffic and water studies before development could begin. Developers would have to pay for those studies.

The plan also includes policies to preserve open space and a wildlife corridor.

A recently updated land-use map of Arroyo Grande, a document that shows where development can occur, recognized the wildlife corridor that runs along the southern portion of the area.

That wildlife corridor stretches east and west between the Santa Catalina and Tortolita mountains.

Under the updated map, that area would remain 100 percent undeveloped if the annexation goes forward.

A recent Arizona Game and Fish Department study also explored the area.

That study confirmed what many environmental groups have said for years: Arroyo Grande represents a critical linkage between areas of animal habitat.

More significantly, the study provided maps of the wildlife linkage, which town officials have incorporated in their planning.

“We did it by the science, we followed what the science said,” Oro Valley Town Councilman Barry Gillaspie said.

The councilman also noted the cooperation among stakeholders in the annexation, notably between the town and Pima County.

A few issues, however, remain.

Carolyn Campbell of the conservationist Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, who has worked with town officials throughout the planning, would like to see changes to a provision of the plan that allows electrical transfer stations to be built in the corridor.

She said the structures present obstacles to animals that travel through the wildlife corridor.

Pima County officials also have expressed some reservations about the plan.

County Supervisors recently approved a proposal to purchase more than 4,000 acres of the  wildlife linkage within Arroyo Grande as an extension of Tortolita Mountain Park.

The plan that Oro Valley officials passed last week recognized this and noted that the town would “continue to cooperate” with the county and state to help make the sale possible.

But that’s not enough for Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

“The language in the policy is just not sufficient,” Huckelberry said.

The proposed special area policy, as recommended by the planning and zoning commission, lacks specificity about how the town would work with the county to buy the land and extend the park, Huckelberry added.

Although a minor dispute now, the issue could create difficulties when negotiations between the Arizona State Land Department and Oro Valley continue on the way to a pre-annexation development agreement — the key element to any annexation of state land. 

Any decisions about the future of Arroyo Grande made at Oro Valley Town Hall would have to meet with the approval of the Arizona State Land Department and factor into the pre-annexation contract before the deal could go forward.

County officials want a price guarantee on the sale of land in the wildlife corridor, what Huckelberry called “conservation value.”

“The development value (of the corridor area) has been stripped by the plan itself,” Huckelberry said.

If the county can’t secure the reduced rate, officials could pull their support for the annexation deal, a move that could derail the pending agreement.

But a problem of definitions remains, namely the lack of a definition for “conservation value.”

Under constitutional mandate, the land department must sell its lands at “highest and best value,” essentially an order to maximize profits. Conservation normally does not factor into the department’s sales decisions.

The town would continue to work with the county to find a solution to the issue, Oro Valley Planning and Zoning Director Sarah More said.

Even before any contracts are signed, the Arroyo Grande plan represents a departure for how the land department does business.

From the start, the state proposal has included a provision for maintaining 68 percent open space in Arroyo Grande. Initially, though, the state plan did not define what open space meant.

Still, the Arizona State Land Department now appears amenable to open space defined as areas free from development.

“To have the state land department working with all of us this closely,” Campbell said, “is really remarkable.”

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