Last November, nearly 200 Marana residents packed into a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting to advocate for the Tortolita Preserve, a 2,400-acre plot of Arizona State Land that hosts native flora and fauna and a network of popular hiking trails.
The land was at risk of being reconfigured and rezoned during the formation of the Make Marana 2040 General Plan. The draft of this plan—which will go to the voters in August for ratification—had originally designated about 20 percent of the preserve as a special planning area, which could give way to mixed-use development, higher density zoning and planned area residential developments in the future.
But the public concern over this caused Mayor Ed Honea and council members to nix the special planning area, and designate all of the Tortolita Preserve as low-density residential, effectively shielding it from significant grading and development in the future.
Today, the same force behind that public demonstration is actively working to expand its local political influence, through a community group called the Tortolita Alliance. Membership includes environmental activists and residents of Dove Mountain, where single-family homes abut the vast acreage of pristine desert land that is the Tortolita Preserve.
At the first group meeting last Friday, Jan. 31, the group’s founders laid out plans to advocate for the continued conservancy of the land, as well as other related causes.
“If you want things to change, or you like the way they are, you need to be involved,” said one of the founders, Dave Barker. “It’s easy to show up with your hair on fire when things are about done, but I think to make a difference we need to all be more involved in the day-to-day decisions.”
In late October, the founders created a website, tortolitaalliance.com, to share information on their mission and progress, upcoming public meetings, important aspects of the town’s General Plan and other related links. It has served as the group’s main tool for spreading awareness, and gained them a following of about 330 subscribers.
They also asked around for other groups to speak up on this issue during the formation of the General Plan. They partnered with Sonoran Desert Mountain Biking and Dove Mountain Hiking groups for their shared interests in protecting the Tortolita Preserve.
They tapped Carolyn Campbell, the executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection and expert in land and wildlife preservation in Northwest Tucson, who submitted comments to the town council in October urging them to protect the preserve and other important wildlife corridors in the area.
These additional voices helped further the Tortolita Alliance’s efforts to be heard. Thanks to the council’s concessions, the group supports the ratification of the General Plan as is.
Another founder, Tom Hannagan, said the group learned some lessons in the last three or four months that is driving them to be more proactive in the future. He said they learned “late in the game” about the Tortolita Preserve’s special planning area, just a few weeks before the council was set to vote on it.
“We were able to organize and we were able to overcome, we got a very good response from the Planning and Zoning Commission and a very good response from the town council, but I for one don’t like being in that position,” Hannagan said. “Development Services had a lot of focus group meetings; we weren’t there. We found out late in the game because we weren’t participating.”
Going forward, the Tortolita Alliance expects to expand their website and social media presence, continue to hold regular meetings at the Highlands Community Center and branch out their advocacy work to incorporate issues they see with town growth, development, roads, water availability, zoning codes and more.
The founders filed for the Tortolita Alliance’s nonprofit corporation status early last month, and are waiting to hear back from the state. If approved, they will hold an organizational meeting where the group’s official officers will be elected by members.
There was a collective frustration throughout the meeting regarding a lack of representation from Dove Mountain on the town council and various boards and commissions.
“Humans don’t like feeling uncertain and in the dark; one of things we are working on is trying to find ways to influence the political process that is Marana town government,” said Alyssa Page, another founder of the group. “We have an election coming up, and we are hoping that each one of you will in some small part take an active part in helping shape the new Marana town council, hopefully with some fresh faces. We’re not saying that everybody up there is bad, but we also know from our existing experience in the last six months that maybe we need more representation, especially from up in this area.”
Another founder, Mark Johnson, said they are interested in supporting candidates from the Dove Mountain area who want to run for a seat on the council or a town board or commission in 2020.
“The government is run by those who show up,” Johnson said.