For the second time in less than a decade, Oro Valley voters turned down a bond package to fund accelerated development at the Naranja Park site.
More than 70 percent of the roughly 16,000 Oro Valley voters who turned in ballots were against the bond, which would have been paid off over 20 years through a property tax.
Oro Valley resident James (Jim) Horn called the failure of the bond “good for the community.”
Horn is the chair of the Axe the Tax Political Action Committee, which formed in opposition to Proposition 454 after the $17 million question was placed on the Nov. 7 ballot by the Oro Valley Town Council.
“Whether it was at Sun City or when I was riding my bike around the neighborhood, I sensed that there was opposition to 454,” Horn said. “I didn’t realize it would be that significant.”
The 213-acre park site, located at 810 W. Naranja Drive, was acquired by the town through purchases in 1996 and 2000, and the idea behind the purchase was to build a park site “consisting of a wide range of amenities to appeal to all ages and user groups,” according to town documents.
After an initial master planning process, Oro Valley residents voted against a $48.6 million bonding plan in 2008.
After sitting undeveloped for more than a decade, an archery range was built in 2012, and the town adopted a “pay-as-you-go” strategy for phased development.
The Prop 454 project details were taken from the 2015 Naranja Park Master Plan, the full build-out of which would cost $33 million. Prop 454 was a condensed version of the master plan, and included a four-field baseball/softball complex, three multi-sports fields, parking lots, batting cages, a multi-use path and a playground. The park currently hosts a fixed and walking archery range, walking trails, two dog parks, a pair of lit sports fields, restrooms and associated infrastructure.
The prospect of accelerated development at Naranja Park first emerged on Feb. 15 at a town council session. During the call to the audience, local youth athletes, their parents and coaches expressed a desire for more fields at the park.
Two months later, town staff delivered a potential plan to council: Pay for expedited improvements with general obligation bonds, repaid via a property tax. Oro Valley Finance Director Stacey Lemos told Tucson Local Media at the time that continuing the pay-as-you-go strategy would not be feasible for such a large investment.
According to Horn, the results of the election show that council should instead stick with phased development.
“We think that the ball fields should be built, but pay-as-you-go,” he said. “I think the town council needs to take a hard look at these results to determine in which direction they continue spending money.”
While Horn feels validated with the voting population behind his cause, the results of last Tuesday’s election left a much different impression on fellow Oro Valley resident Brian Mitchell.
Mitchell, who chairs the Yes on 454 PAC and coaches for Oro Valley Little League, said he was “appalled” by the results. Despite the loss, he said that “there’s no crying in baseball,” and that the Yes team has every reason to hold their heads high in defeat.
“It’s disappointing, but it is what it is,” Mitchell said. “Oro Valley has decided not to support the kids of Oro Valley. I understand, we’re big boys.”
David and Goliath
The Yes campaign came up short, despite raising significantly far more funds over the course of its run. Through Oct. 21, the Yes on 454 PAC outraised the Axe the Tax PAC by a landslide: $42,775 in support, compared to $4,623 in opposition.
The Axe campaign received all but one of its significant contributions directly from individual members of the community. The PAC also received a donation from Toggle Enterprises L.L.C. (managed by resident Hal Biestek) for $96.80. In terms of individual donations totaling $50 or less, Axe collected another $1,230.11.
The Yes campaign amassed its contributions from a variety of local developers, corporations and asset management firms. Significant contributions, of $5,000 each, came from Cox Communications, Anthem Equity Group, Inc. (a real estate and asset management firm), Tucson Electric Power parent company Unisource Energy Corporation, Wexler & Associates, LLC (synonymous with local developer Gregory Wexler); homebuilder Stone Canyon Fairfield Homes and Meritage Homes regional president Jeff Grobstein.
Other significant contributions came from developer Mattamy Tucson, LLC ($2,500); Southwest DVI Properties, LLC ($2,500); Diamond Ventures ($2,500); the HSL Hotel Opportunity Fund II, LLC ($1,250); HSL Sundown Village ($1,250); HSL La Reserve Properties ($1,250); real estate developer Vistoso Development, LLC ($1,000); WLB Engineering owner William C. Walker ($1,000) Sombra Homes, Inc. ($500); Vantage West banker Tim Overton ($100) and Mitchell ($100). Little League Baseball Inc. donated $250, though the amount was refunded.
“It’s a true David and Goliath story,” Horn said.”It’s phenomenal, but I think we had a really good story to tell, and I think that the voters were listening.”
Horn said that one of the major narratives for the opposition was the “fiscal irresponsibility” of the town council. In August, he cited the 2008 purchase of Steam Pump Ranch that the town has “done nothing” with, and the community center golf courses as examples of what he considers council’s past mistakes.
According to Oro Valley Mayor Satish Hiremath, the failure of Prop. 454 is unrelated to the public’s approval of town council.
“I think that this is just an outlier,” he said. “The ’14 election, the ’15 recall and the ’16 election, I think that, in general, the residents like the vision and direction of the community.”
The $17 million question was placed on the Nov. 7 ballot by the Oro Valley Town Council via unanimous decision at its May 3 meeting. According to Hiremath, that vote marked the end of their role in the election process.
“We really had no skin in the game,” he said. “And while all of us probably would have liked to see the development, this is exactly why we take things to the voters, and why there exists a democratic process. Our obligation really ended, as a council, by putting the bond question on the ballot… This is the process; people come to us with a demand, we put a question on the ballot and it’s the people’s choice.”
Per cost estimates from the Pima County Recorder and the Pima County Elections Department, the election cost Oro Valley $145,000. Funding was included in the current budget.
‘Bigger, faster and stronger’
The 2015 Naranja Park Master Plan still remains. The plan includes all of the amenities from Prop. 454, as well as an event center, splash pad community lawn and outdoor performance area.
Development at the site will continue over time, Hiremath said, but the ultimate product may not end up what’s shown in the current master plan.
“This council has done very well balancing the budget, trying to create surplus funds, create things for the community, so we will continue to develop Naranja Park,” Hiremath said. “The only, I guess, travesty out of the whole thing is specifically the baseball diamond. Because there is no way you can build those piecemeal.”
Two lit multi-use fields are slated for development in the current fiscal year, at a cost of roughly $1 million, bringing the total to four.
Mitchell said that while the development of fields is always a positive step, there will still be youth athletic programs without home fields in Oro Valley—something he considered a driving force behind the push for Prop. 454. He said Yes will regroup, find ways to work with existing facilities in the region and eventually, “find another way.”
Though Mitchell was “appalled” by the proceedings of the actual election, he didn’t completely shut the door on future involvement for the Yes committee.
“It was a very nasty election,” he said. “I’m not a politician and have no desires to ever be in the political arena, especially after reading some of the things that they said about our kids. It is just appalling, from the whole leadership of the ‘Axe the Kids’ gang. It is what it is, and we will figure out another way. We will regroup, come back and we will be bigger, faster and stronger.”