A requested rezoning of a sliver of land has some people wondering what constitutes a park in Oro Valley.
Owners of the property in question, the undeveloped 19-acre Miller Ranch near Tangerine Road and La Cañada Drive, have asked the Oro Valley Town Council to designate a thin strip of wash that runs southward through the property as parks and open space.
If the council approves the move at the Wednesday, April 15 meeting, the property would act as a narrow buffer between the sparse residential section at the west end and the potentially bustling commercial portion at to the east.
But the request has some in Oro Valley questioning the owner's motivation.
"They're using it, rather than as a protected piece of land, as a separation," said Bill Adler, a member of the town's planning and zoning commission.
Town rules require certain building setbacks based on the height of structures and how neighboring properties are zoned. Without the parks and open space to separate the residential from commercial portions of the property, building setbacks on the commercial side would be 3-to-1, or as much as 90 feet. But setbacks for properties abutting parks would be as little as 15 feet, maximizing the amount of usable space.
"I think everyone has been very open and above-board about the rationale of this," said Sarah More, Oro Valley's planning and zoning director.
Still, the possibility of designating the narrow wash, which runs like a gossamer thread through the middle of the property, as open space and park has Adler crying foul. To him, the request was little more than a ruse.
"It's an attempt to make an end-run around reasonable setbacks in our zoning code," Adler said.
The town's general plan lists the wash as a significant resource area. The plan also seeks to protect washes from the encroachment of development.
Allowing development as close as 15 feet from the wash, to Adler, seems to conflict with precepts of the general plan. Adler also said the parks designation would — by definition — permit other uses for the property.
"A parks and open space use allows for disturbance," Adler said.
Councilman Bill Garner also has reservations about the rezoning, but said he intends to hear out the property owner before making a decision. Still, Garner said to rezone the wash as a park would cause additional difficulties.
"Would we then need to place conditions on this wash?" Garner said.
If it were made into open space, Garner said bikes and other recreational activities would need to be banned to preserve the natural environment.
Zoning Director More doesn’t necessarily agree, explaining the property owner has committed to doing restorative work to portions of the wash that over the years have been damaged.
"The only disturbance would be to restore the wash," More said.
Another issue with the parks designation, however, centers on how the property would fit into the town’s other parks and open space assets.
In most cases, open spaces have some connectivity with riparian areas, parks, golf courses and walking trails. Thin strips of open space weave through portions of Rancho Vistoso, most connect to trails or the larger washes like Big Wash, Honey Bee Wash and Batamonte Wash.
Those washes are large enough to have their own trail systems. Some, like Big Wash, rank among the largest washes in the area, with a water flow of more than 10,000 cubic feet per second while flooded.
The wash that runs through the Miller Ranch property flows at less than 500 cubic feet per second.
If the council approves the requested zoning change, the parks and open space section would stand alone, disembodied from existing trails or parks.
In addition to the concerns over the perceived flouting of the zoning code, the town recently paid nearly $300,00 to have an environmentally sensitive lands ordinance written. The ordinance would codify protection of environmental assets such as desert tracts and washes.
"It just seems like a contradiction," Adler said.
Garner agreed, saying the change would set a bad precedent.
"To me, the point that we need to rezone a wash to parks and open space when we never have done so before, that’s like opening the genie’s bottle," Garner said.
Contested rezoning on OV council agenda
In February, the town planning and zoning commission were deadlocked, 3 to 3, on the proposed rezoning. The commission gave the town council no recommendation on the property owner’s request.
WHAT: Oro Valley Town Council meeting
WHEN: Wednesday, April 15; 6 p.m.
WHERE: Oro Valley Town Hall, 11000 N. La Cañada Drive