Enthusiasm was short-lived after the Oro Valley Town Council passed a general plan amendment paving the way for the possible annexation of a 14-square-mile area north of town.

A dispute between Pima County and Oro Valley over the proposed annexation emerged a day after the town council approved the amendment on Nov. 19.

In a memo (download copies of several town and county Arroyo Grande memos), Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry told Oro Valley Town Manager David Andrews that the county would abandon its efforts to preserve land in Arroyo Grande.

“Our staff has done all we can on this matter at this time and we need to focus our attention where open space acquisitions are possible in the near term,” Huckelberry wrote Nov. 20.

The county administrator’s main criticism stems from the absence of wording in the general plan that would ensure that open space in Arroyo Grande and a wildlife corridor are sold for below-market value for conservation purposes.

The county was prepared to buy as many as 6,000 acres of land at roughly $1,000 per acre, according to Huckelberry.  

But Andrews contends that such stipulations like price-per-acre would not be spelled out in the general plan but rather in the pre-annexation development agreement, the contract between the town and the Arizona State Land Department.

The town manager said Oro Valley shares Pima County’s commitment to open-space preservation and intends to solidify that pledge in the annexation contract.

“The preservation of open space in perpetuity is a deal breaker for the town,” Andrews said, explaining that provisions for open space must be included in the contract for the annexation to proceed.  

The current Arroyo Grande plan sets aside nearly 70 percent of the property as open space.

“Sixty-eight-percent will be preserved as open space irrespective of what Mr. Huckelberry wants to do,” Oro Valley Town Councilman Bill Garner said. “I don’t see where things have broken down.”

Despite the show of abandoning the talks over Arroyo Grande, the county has effectively had its way throughout the negotiations.

In addition to having a seat at the bargaining table since the process began, county officials have convinced Oro Valley leaders to change terms of the deal.

Last February, Oro Valley Councilman Barry Gillaspie and Pima County Supervisor Ann Day briefly clashed over comments Day made about the town’s commitment to open space conservation in Arroyo Grande.

Day expressed concern over initial plans that would have classified populated areas of Arroyo Grande as open space.

Since then, the town and state have amended the plan to include areas called “natural open space” that would remain free from development.

Partly resulting from county pressure, the town also incorporated a nearly half-mile-wide wildlife corridor into the plan.

The corridor stretches 4 miles from Oracle Road to the Tortolita Mountains in the extreme west of Arroyo Grande. Under the original plan, the area would have been filled with commercial and residential developments.

Oro Valley leaders also recently adopted the county’s Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, a comprehensive set of environmental protection policies.

“We’ve clearly wanted the same thing (as the county) from the beginning,” Andrews said.

The manager also said a recent media report that claimed the future of the wildlife corridor and open space in Arroyo Grande were at risk was unfounded.

“The wildlife corridor and open space are not in jeopardy,” Andrews said.

At a recent town council meeting, state land department representatives expressed a shared commitment to preserving open space, but, like town officials, they want those assurances cemented in a pre-annexation contract.

Andrews sent a transcript of the land department representative’s statement to Huckelberry, adding: “We intend to hold the State Land Department to their public commitment and hope you will continue working as a member of the team to see this to the end.”

Huckelberry responded saying the state’s comments were “confusing” and “non-committal.”

“We are not reassured,” Huckelberry wrote.

Oro Valley intends to continue its negotiations with state officials next year.

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