When the Marana Town Council unanimously approved their draft of the Make Marana 2040 General Plan, one major component was on everyone’s minds: the Tortolita Preserve.

The 2,400 acres of sprawling desert owned by State Land Trust, leased to the Town of Marana and known commonly as the Tortolita Preserve, are an asset that many nearby residents want to see untouched and undeveloped.

The preserve is home to a variety of desert flora and fauna, notably the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, lesser long-nosed bat and many ironwood trees and saguaro cacti. Located directly southwest of the Ritz Carlton resort and Dove Mountain residential community, the area is also a popular hiking destination.

Marana’s draft general plan (which will go to the voters in August for ratification) had originally designated about 20 percent of the Tortolita 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.

“This [Special Planning Area] is a label that the town has used for at least 10 years in this area,” said Jason Angell, Marana’s Development Services Director. “And [it was] to tie the General Plan to the economic development road map which identified this as a critical corridor for future growth and development within our community.”

During a special meeting on Dec. 10 where the council unanimously approved the general plan, Mayor Ed Honea made an amendment to get rid of the Special Planning Area and designate all State Land in Marana as low-density residential zoning.

The land was already zoned low-density and rural residential before this decision, but the town council felt it was necessary to take this step because it makes it easier to prevent high-density developments from being built in the area.

“I think it will put a lot of people’s minds at ease, that doesn’t say forever and ever there will never be any changes on that property, but just to make it simpler to come in and do a real high-density on it or something is something I was worried about with the SPA,” Honea said.

While all the other council members agreed with the mayor’s decision to make an amendment before the General Plan was approved to go to the voters, some took issue with various consequences of the decision.

By nixing the Special Planning Area, any zoning changes from low-density residential to employment uses, no matter the size, would require a major amendment, according to Angell. Major amendments can only be heard once a year by the council.

“I’ve always advocated for getting businesses in the Town of Marana, so people can stay in the Town of Marana with their children and work in the Town of Marana, and right now one of our challenges is bringing those kinds of businesses into the Town of Marana,” said council member Roxanne Zielger.

“This land is not going to develop overnight, I’ll probably be at the veterans cemetery by the time it does, but once a year major changes can be made if there is an applicant,” Honea said.

Council member Jon Post said the mayor’s motion was “short-sighted” but he still voted in favor of it because he doesn’t believe this land will be developed for many years.

“It will go through this General Plan into the next one, and maybe even into the one after that, before something is done with it,” Post said.

He called for a future plan detailing what will ultimately happen with the Tortolita Preserve. Currently, the town pays $500,000 annually to lease it from the State Land Department and payments are set to increase every five years by 10 percent or the Consumer Price Index, whichever is higher. By the end of the lease in 2099, staff estimate the cost to rise over $2.6 million.

The mayor and council previously discussed the unsustainability of that financial agreement and engaged in conversations with State Land to auction it off.

Carolyn Campbell, executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, spoke at the council meeting to express support for the council’s decision to protect the Tortolita Preserve, but also to urge them to develop an Open Space and Wildlife Protection Plan soon so that future development plans will have to consider the effect on natural resources and wildlife.

“We feel that land use and conservation planning have to be integrated, so I hope that will be moving forward with an Open Space and Wildlife Protection Plan and then integrating that into the land use plan when it’s complete,” she said.

Mark Johnson, an original member of the newly-formed Tortolita Alliance, also expressed gratitude at the meeting for the council’s decision. The group is made up of local Marana residents and environmental activists who advocate for the conservation of the preserve and “associated lands, ensuring protection of open space, wildlife habitat, watershed and compatible recreational use.”

“It’s really a pleasant experience to be able to come to a meeting like this where you voted in favor of preserving something so special to a lot of us and listening to us all,” Johnson told the council. “This really instills your faith in public government. Rest assured, everybody in the Tortolita Alliance will work closely with the town to make sure that it remains the shining star that it is today.”

Many residents who spoke at the meeting said they supported the efforts of the Tortolita Alliance and expressed that the Tortolita Preserve was a major reason for why they chose to live in Marana.

Council member Patti Comerford spoke about the balance between competing interests in the town, and how some of their decisions on land development have been met with pushback.

“You all live where you live because someone had a dream, and that all happens with good planning,” she said. “And that’s why it’s so important for you to stay involved. Some of you wouldn’t have homes where you live because there’s always somebody protesting.” 

Honea added that the Sky Ranch and Tangerine Crossings housing developments had protests when they were slated to be built. Ultimately, he said that “people can live here if you do it respectfully.”

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