State Trust Land

A map of the various proposed zoning banks prepared by  The WLB Group for the two State Trust Land properties the Town of Oro Valley could annex in the future.

The Town of Oro Valley has hosted numerous discussions regarding the controversial but inevitable development of 885 acres of untouched State Trust Land on Tangerine Road, and nearby residents have a variety of concerns.

The parcels in question are situated between Marana, Oro Valley and unincorporated Pima County. Despite a significant amount of pushback from the community, a move towards annexation is shaping up to be in the hands of Oro Valley. Marana town officials have already said they support their neighboring town’s efforts to take over the land, which sits between Thornydale Road and Shannon Road on either side of Tangerine Road.

Although the Oro Valley Town Council has yet to vote for official approval of an annexation, the town staff are already in preliminary conversations with the State Land Department. 

The department unveiled its proposal for an annexation and rezoning of the land at two neighborhood meetings and four focus workshops throughout the last month. The final workshop, held last Tuesday, Dec. 11, discussed the northern parcel of land between Thornydale Road and Coyote Crossing Trail on Tangerine Road.

Residents at the meeting hailed from either Pima County or Marana, but since Oro Valley is the likely municipality to annex the land, town planning manager Bayer Vella was presenting the state department’s proposal.

He assured the group of residents no final decisions have been made yet, and the town is not endorsing the proposal made by the land department. Oro Valley held the meetings for the purpose of including the community’s concerns in future discussions with the State Land Department before a final decision on annexation is made, Vella said.

“Ultimately the town council will vote on what the zoning is, and ultimately State Land will decide what is in the application,” he said at the Dec. 11 workshop.

Residents to the east agreed they want at least 150 feet of undeveloped land between their homes and any future development to serve as a buffer. They also want one- acre lots to be the standard for future developments, because low-density housing would preserve the environment.

The proposal, prepared by local engineering firm The WLB Group, calls for zoning banks, which are areas that could be zoned for different purposes depending on the economic needs of the time. Residents said these banks would give developers free rein to put in high-density housing in the years to come.

The WLB Group defends zoning banks as a flexibility that “allows the property to respond to market conditions in the Town of Oro Valley” and all rezoning must be approved by the town council anyway.

The department’s proposal calls for five different zoning banks in the 302-acre section north of Tangerine Road, the first four of which are permitted for medium-density residential, which are detached single-family homes. The fifth zoning bank, abutting Tangerine Road, is permitted for medium to high density residential or commercial employment use, meaning businesses, townhomes or condominiums.

For the square-shaped, 550-acre section south of Tangerine Road, the proposal lists a variety of zoning possibilities from medium to high-density residential. The high-density zones are situated on the northwestern side, while the medium-density zones are on the southeastern side. Commercial development is permitted toward the center, directly south of the Tangerine Crossing neighborhood.

The residents of the state land’s surrounding neighborhoods strongly oppose a road extension connecting North Coyote Crossing Trail to West Shannon Road, creating a north-south thoroughfare between North Thornydale and North La Cholla roads. Several residents said the extension was unnecessary and would bring traffic right to their doorsteps.

If there must be a straight connection, nearby residents want it to be farther west away from homes on the east side of the property.

“Any street on that eastern side of this, I think we’ve heard loud and clear, that the community wants it to come over [to the west],” said Oro Valley Town Engineer Paul Keesler.

If the land is annexed, Moore Road would become the responsibility of Oro Valley, instead of Pima County. Keesler told the residents the change could be an opportunity to fix up Moore Road, since it would experience an increase in traffic with the proposed changes.

The traffic design in the department’s proposal consists of one major north-south roadway that curves slightly, with a variety of curved streets branching out to connect the different zoning banks. Keesler said he expects to receive a traffic impact analysis from the State Land Department that could help both parties figure out the best way to minimize changes to existing infrastructure and manage the impact of any traffic increases.

Residents also have an interest in maintaining the integrity of environmental resources in the pristine desert land. Robert Longaker III, a senior project manager with The WLB Group, said they are mapping all the native and endangered plant species in the area to ensure they do not interfere with them, as required by state code. In their proposal, they said the Desert Tortoise is the only special status species identified by the Arizona Game and Fish Department in their analysis of the land.

Town officials said if annexation goes through, they would develop the land in accordance with the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Ordinance. The ESLO does not completely block development in an environmentally-sensitive area, but it prevents new infrastructure from being placed near native plants and wildlife habitats.

The proposal calls for new water and sewer lines to be constructed parallel to the new roadways, which would connect to existing lines on the boundaries of the state land. The town states it has enough water coming in from groundwater, reclaimed water and Central Arizona Project resources to support build out plus an additional 4,000 homes for the next 100 years at least.

One resident asked why the State Land Department created the proposal, if Oro Valley would be responsible for making decisions once annexed. Vella had a simple answer: “Every rezoning application we work on is sourced from the property owner. The town reacts to rezoning proposals.”

The town government has been discussing the fate of these parcels with the State Land Department for about nine years, according to a fact sheet handed out at the meetings. In 2013, the town council approved a resolution to include the southern parcel in the town’s planning area boundary. The northern parcel was added in 2017. In February of this year, the council under former Mayor Satish Hiremath approved a resolution intending to pursue annexation of the land.

“Oro Valley has a long history of annexations that resulted in the community we have today,” Mayor Joe Winfield said in a phone interview. “I’m supportive of annexation when it is in the best interest of the town. There are annexations that certainly make sense. There may be other annexations that don’t necessarily fit the vision of the town.”

Winfield said the town’s general plan helps to clarify which annexations are acceptable, but there are still economic, environmental and social factors that must be considered.

There will be one more neighborhood meeting before the council goes to a vote, but the date has yet to be determined, according to Vella. Town staff plan to reconvene with department officials sometime in February to discuss an updated proposal with input from the residents, as well as the traffic impact analysis.

Carolyn Oberholtzer, land use counsel for the State Land Department, told the group of residents their input is valued, but there is still a lot of work ahead.

“Right now, this is the very first step in a process,” she said. “I think you will see elements of what you guys have asked for reflected in [the updated] plans. I can’t speak to which ones yet, because we’re still working through it all.”

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