Wildlife gates solve a conflict in OV

With help from a young neighbor, Oro Valley Mayor Joe Winfield cut the ribbon on a new wildlife gate across Scenic Corridor Place, a public road in Oro Valley that intersects with busy Oracle Road. The gate keeps wildlife off Oracle at night; it automatically opens any time a vehicle approaches from either side. (Dave Perry/Contributor)

Gates across two Oro Valley public streets right off Oracle Road resemble the vehicle obstacles one might see on a private residential roadway.

But these gates don’t impede cars. Rather, they keep wildlife from attempting nighttime crossings of busy Oracle, and they have brought conflict resolution and real comfort to wildlife advocates, government employees and the residents of 55 single-family homes immediately west of Oracle Road.

On April 19, more than 100 people cut a ribbon to celebrate completion of the Oracle Road Wildlife Gate and Fence project, a nearly $500,000 effort some thought would never happen.

“You can’t even imagine how happy I feel right now,” said Carolyn Campbell, executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection. “To us, this is the culmination of a lot of work, and the result of collaboration. Collaboration wins the day.”

When Oracle Road, State Route 77, was widened in 2016, wildlife fences were installed on both sides of the north-south SR 77 corridor from Tangerine Road to the Pinal County line. The Pima Association of Governments/Regional Transportation Authority also built a wildlife bridge over Oracle Road between Oro Valley and Catalina, and a wildlife underpass beneath the six-lane highway, both intended to keep migrating animals off Oracle.

To funnel animals toward those safe paths, plans called for installation of a 10-foot-high wildlife routing fence along the entire western edge of subdivisions directly above Big Wash. Residents of two neighborhoods, accessed on Scenic Overlook Place and Big Wash Overlook Place, did not like that idea. At all.

When installation of the tall fence began, the neighbors “saw what it was and objected to it,” said Paul Keesler, town of Oro Valley engineer and public works director. “So, construction stopped.”

“We said, ‘No way, Jose,’” resident Pat Miller said. Neighbors said they believed tall fencing would block their views and diminish their home values. Miller added, “We never would have seen any wildlife” in and beyond their yards.

Government and advocacy groups then “came together to help figure out why the neighbors were so against the ugly fencing,” Campbell said. Agencies touted the science associated with fencing. Neighbors simply responded, “‘You don’t get it,’” Campbell recalled.

“We were at loggerheads, honestly,” Keesler said. “We could not find a solution that was acceptable for the neighbors.”

“At one point, early on, we thought we’d just have to live with the gap” along Oracle, Campbell said. “It took so much work to understand each other’s positions.”

Then a suggestion arose – “why don’t we put a gate across” the two roads, Miller recalled.

“Why don’t we utilize the sound walls,” built along Oracle to muffle noise, “and ‘gate’ these public streets?” Keesler remembered.

So the parties — the town, PAG/RTA, the Arizona Department of Transportation, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, and the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, in partnership with the neighbors — eventually altered the fence plan and agreed upon the two gates.

These are not vehicle gates, Keesler emphasized.

“This is a public street,” and as such it cannot be gated to regulate vehicle movement, he said. They’re “wildlife gates. They will always open for cars.”

Motorists need no codes nor clickers; sensors built into the road surface at either side of the gates detect vehicles, and trigger opening and closing. Gates stay open if vehicles remain within their swing. Gates are tied aesthetically into the sound walls with masonry block and desert-hued iron fencing. Adjacent pedestrian gates allow people to walk through any time.

Gates are closed when it’s dark, and animals are less visible to motorists. “That’s when we’re trying to keep them from crossing” Oracle Road, said Cheryl Huelle, senior civil engineer for the town. They open at daybreak. On this day, when the gates opened, a neighbor reported seven javelina left one of the subdivisions to move across Oracle.

“Wildlife is certainly a part of where we live,” Oro Valley Mayor Joe Winfield said at the ribbon cutting. In concert with the nearby wildlife-crossing structures, the project should help wildlife “safely move through their habitat,” and across the desert and washes bordered by the Santa Catalina and Tortolita mountain ranges, the mayor said. “It’s to their benefit, and to motorists, too.”

Funding came from PAG/RTA, which administers money from the voter-approved half-cent sales tax that pays for regional transportation-related projects. The town served as project administrator. Work was done by AECOM, Sellers & Sons Inc., Ninyo & Moore, and Tucson Electric Power, among other contractors.

Keesler said he believes the solution may be the first of its kind. “This was a very innovative design,” he said. As PAG/RTA prepares to ask voters to renew the 20-year sales tax for transportation and related improvements, “we want to see a lot more of these,” Campbell said.

“This project is truly a group effort to find solutions to protect wildlife without compromising our scenic views,” the mayor said in a release. “We are grateful for the residents, conservation groups and regional partners who share our community’s values and collaborated with the town of Oro Valley on this wonderful project.”

Last Wednesday, the mayor acknowledged “it’s important to work with the neighbors.”

Now, there is wildlife in the communities, views are protected, and creatures are blocked from nighttime forays across Oracle. “Congratulations to all for this wonderful outcome,” Miller concluded.

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