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A planning map for the two plots of land the Town of Oro Valley has discussed annexing from the Arizona State Land Department for several years.

Oro Valley’s plans to annex nearly 900 acres of pristine desert land near the Town of Marana have come to a grinding halt, thanks to staff vacancies within the Arizona State Land Department.

For years, the town has been in talks with State Land to annex and eventually develop the property, which is split into two sections on either side of Tangerine Road between Thornydale Road and Shannon Road. It’s bordered by Marana’s jurisdiction to the west, Oro Valley to the east and unincorporated Pima County to the north and south.

Now that the surrounding areas have been developed by either Marana or Oro Valley, State Land believes it’s an appropriate time to sell the parcel and make the most amount of revenue possible to generate funds primarily for K-12 education in Arizona.

The initial proposed site plan—generated by State Land and local planning firm The WLB Group—was made public in September 2018 and raised concerns among residents. The town conducted eight public meetings, four informal gatherings with neighbors and a council study session to consider their ideas.

The proposal calls for five 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 reign to put in high-density housing in the years to come.

In the section north of Tangerine Road, the first four of those five zoning banks are designated medium-density residential, which are detached single-family homes. The fifth zoning bank, which abuts Tangerine Road, is permitted for medium to high density residential or commercial employment use, meaning retail, offices, townhomes or condominiums.

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 requests must be approved by the town council anyway.

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

The residents of the land’s surrounding neighborhoods strongly oppose a road extension that would connect Coyote Crossing Trail to Shannon Road, creating a north-south thoroughfare between Thornydale Road and La Cholla Road. At one of the neighborhood meetings earlier this year, many agreed that it was unnecessary and would bring traffic right to their doorsteps.

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

Residents to the east agreed that 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, because low-density housing would preserve the desert environment.

Oro Valley is almost 90 percent “built-out” according to town documents, which means within the current boundaries of the town there are almost no more opportunities for new development.

At a previous study session, the town’s chief financial officer, Stacey Lemos, explained to the council that if Oro Valley doesn’t annex, the town would lose out on long-term revenues that come along with annexation such as state-shared revenues, utility taxes, retail and sales tax and more. Since Oro Valley incorporated in 1974, the town has completed over 20 annexations.

A fiscal impact analysis of the initial site plan was completed by Phoenix-based economic consulting firm Applied Economics in April of this year. It predicts the costs of providing municipal services to this area will be exceeded by the revenues coming in by about 28 percent. With an inflation rate of 2 percent per year, the firm estimated a positive annual net impact of $890,000 at complete built out, which would likely happen near the year 2040.

Their conservative estimates show potential for 1,669 housing units and 1 million square feet of commercial and office development. About 3,600 jobs would be generated, based on standard assumptions for floor area ratios, occupancy rates and square footage per employee requirements.

The town would be on the hook for maintaining about 34 new lane miles of streets. The analysis assumes that local neighborhood streets would be maintained by future homeowner associations, as well as any new local parks. The firm’s findings could change based on State Land’s final proposal.

While looking over their first proposal, Oro Valley councilmembers expressed concerns over residential lot sizes, retail viability, transitions in land uses and the zoning banks. They requested that State Land’s final proposal include more information on home density, land use transitions and buffer yards, wildlife preservation, drainage, parks and recreational amenities among other community concerns.

Comments from the town and neighborhood meetings were provided to State Land officials to help them develop their revised proposal. But now, it’s unclear when the two parties will reach that next step.

In a letter dated July 31, 2019, State Land’s Director of Strategic Projects Wesley Mehl told Mayor Joe Winfield that their department has decided to put the project on hold due to several staff vacancies, including the project manager that was assigned to this annexation. They will be focusing their resources on “other priority work of the Department.”

“To effectively manage 9.2 million acres, we have to be prudent in where we invest our time and resources, and occasionally we need to narrow the focus of our work,” Mehl wrote. “We do still intend to follow up on this project at some point in the future.”

The town government has been discussing the fate of these parcels with the State Land Department for about nine years. 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 2018, a previous council approved a resolution intending to pursue annexation of the land.

Mayor Joe Winfield told Tucson Local Media he met with Mehl in late June to reaffirm the town’s interest in pursuing the annexation and development of this property. 

“The 885 acres I think is a challenge for the State Land Department, it’s not like some of their properties that are closer to urban areas that don’t have so much diversity of plants,” Winfield said. “It is incredibly rich with large saguaros, Ironwood trees, Palo Verde trees, and there’s some significant drainage issues. So from their perspective, it’s a more challenging site to work with.”

Vice Mayor Melanie Barrett said the town is still very interested in seeing the project come to fruition, whenever that may be.

“They do intend to follow up at some point in the future,” Barrett told Tucson Local Media last week. “That’s something the council wants as well and we’ll direct staff to keep working with them. The entire council is still very interested in pursuing annexation to the west.”

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