The word “growth” is one that always stirs strong opinions and intensive discourse in Oro Valley. This has been a constant in my 19 years of planning service, and the high level of community involvement has served the town very well. A direct result is that travelers along North Oracle Road know when they enter or exit Oro Valley, regardless of any town limit signage.
As a whole, the quality of the development, landscaping and architecture stands above most communities in the state. This did not happen by accident, nor by the actions of any one person. For each site, the property owner, neighbors, community members at-large, volunteer commission and board members and elected officials have all played a vital role. For this reason, sustaining a high level of community involvement is a recipe for continued success.
So, as we face the question of growth, what is the best course for our community: no growth, managed growth or anything goes? Before answering that question, let’s talk about the level of current growth, and put it into proper context. There are a number of ways to evaluate growth. Because new development is always a “hot button” in Oro Valley, I am focusing on the number of single family residential building permits issued each year.
Over this past year, the town issued 325 single family residential permits, and we are forecasting approximately 300 for each of the next five years. Does this represent a lot of development activity? From a town-wide and historical perspective, the answer is no; however, there are areas in town that are experiencing very significant change. We have crafted a chart to help put things into perspective.
Clearly, the biggest boom years of Oro Valley’s history were in the 1990s. The volume of permit activity was truly incredible for a jurisdiction our size. Compared to today’s market activity in the 300s, a permitting level ranging from 684 to 1,144 is simply unimaginable. During that time, Rancho Vistoso was just starting to come online by offering homes in one subdivision after another.
One can easily see how the high rate of permit issuance began to decline in the 2000s and almost disappeared with a low of 47 permits in the recession years. As the economy rebounded, a level of approximately 300 permits per year has become the new normal in our community. With this current and anticipated rate, combined with the town’s dwindling land availability (around 15 percent remaining), it’s accurate to declare that the boom years are over.
Why does it then seem like there is so much development in Oro Valley right now? The answer is location, location, location. The community has matured to the point that infill development is now a focus. In other words, the more challenging sites that were skipped over in the past are now being revisited by homebuilders. By challenging, I mean there is difficult terrain, drainage issues, constraints to access and/or intensive opposition by neighbors. Due to the shrinking land supply, developers are taking these sites on as projects. Many of those sites are in highly visible locations, like the intersection of North First Avenue and East Tangerine Road.
Although the overall rate of activity is on the historically lower end, one particular area of town is poised to experience dramatic change. Starting this summer, the roadway section of North La Cholla Boulevard, from West Lambert Lane to West Tangerine Road, will be realigned and improved to a four-lane parkway style similar to North La Cañada Drive. In sync with this change, there are residential developments planned along this corridor that will result in approximately 1,000 homes over the next several years. Middle- to small-sized commercial centers are also planned where La Cholla intersects with Lambert Lane, West Naranja Drive and Tangerine Road.
So, what is the best course regarding growth? Any land use planner worth his or her salt will make the case for managed growth versus the two extremes of “no growth” or “anything goes.” And in fact, this issue is largely addressed by the community’s voice, mandates of state law (“no growth” is simply not an option) and consistent quality of the built environment.
The answer lies within the voter-approved Your Voice, Our Future General Plan. Residents told us loud and clear they want a balanced approach to growth that retains Oro Valley’s existing qualities and creates new opportunities for housing, employment, shopping and gathering.
The town’s ordinances and planning efforts provide a framework for making tough decisions about where and what type of growth should and should not occur. Oro Valley grows by ensuring community participation, planning and design quality and environmental conservation. Community participation, in particular, is key to Oro Valley’s continued success.
The town’s effort to provide opportunities for community participation is extensive. In 2016, the first comprehensive zoning requirements for public participation were adopted. Its purpose is plainly stated in the code: Provide stakeholders with opportunities to ask questions, identify issues, and forge solutions early in the development process. As a result, neighborhood meetings are mandatory for key development applications.
All property owners requesting a General Plan amendment, rezoning, conceptual site plan, etc., are required to conduct a neighborhood meeting prior to a formal application submittal. Why so early in the process? Early awareness and understanding provides the best chance for the applicant and neighbors to come together and develop a win-win scenario, if possible.
We do our best to encourage participation. Staff notifies all adjacent property owners, neighborhoods and homeowner’s associations by mail. Furthermore, the development sites are posted with large yellow signs in multiple locations in advance of the meeting.
As required by code, when warranted, more neighborhood meetings are set up using the same notification procedures as before. For relevant development cases considered by the Planning and Zoning Commission since last January, a total of 36 neighborhood meetings were held over the course of each site’s history. That’s an average of 4.5 neighborhood meetings (with a range of 2 to 10 meetings) per development case.
All of the information gathered at the neighborhood meetings is provided to the Planning & Zoning Commission and Town Council. Both provide an additional opportunity for residents to share their views on a proposal before recommendations and decisions are made.
Does this public participation process work? The fact that virtually every application that goes through this process changes in direct response to neighbor concerns means the answer is a resounding yes in my opinion. We all know that it’s impossible to make everyone happy— especially when an infill project is proposed on private land. It is, however, an expectation that designs are sensitive to the existing neighbors and environment.
Since Oro Valley is fast approaching build-out, that means all growth will cease, right? Actually, no. As we’ve seen in communities such as Portland, Boulder and various land-locked Phoenix areas, the dwindling availability of land causes growth to shift to infill and redevelopment. This is a key reason why the town feels the Oro Valley Main Streets project is so important. Smart communities plan for redevelopment before it happens.
By addressing growth, I know this article will surely stir strong opinions and more community discourse. That’s a good thing! Hopefully, it serves to provide baseline information and helps inspire continued community involvement. And please keep an eye out for my follow-up article next month on the topic of environmental conservation in Oro Valley.
Bayer Vella is the Town of Oro Valley Planning Manager.