Neighbors line up against 170-home development proposed on Tucson’s west side
A proposed 170-home subdivision targeted for a 60-acre slice of the Sonoran Desert on Tucson’s west side pits a developer pledging to put the skids on urban sprawl and to protect open space against neighbors who still see too much desert being bladed.
Now, the proposal faces a lengthy delay due to the opposition.
After a City Council public hearing on the project was delayed twice, an attorney for the developer announced last week that a hearing will be pushed back until next year.
The delay will give developers time to meet with neighbors and try to resolve their differences. The developer will hire a facilitator to oversee what’s looming as a highly contentious set of discussions.
The proposal from a subsidiary of homebuilder D.R. Horton Inc. would remove a legal condition placed on the property when the city annexed it 41 years ago that limits development to 36,000-square-foot lots. The proposed project would be built on lots as small as 4,000 square feet.
Developers promote this project as a balance between open space preservation and affordable housing. While they can’t specify home prices for a project that won’t come online for two years, they say they’ll target the homes at entry-level buyers and those moving up to more expensive homes for the first time.
They say this project is an environmentally sensitive alternative to the urban sprawl often associated with large-lot subdivisions. They’ve offered to protect 51% of the property as open space, up from 44% in an earlier proposal after scaling back the homes from 200 to 170.
This project is anything but sensitive to the cacti and desert trees that pack the land and its rolling hills, counter opponents in the West Side Development Neighborhood Association and the Tucson Mountains Association.
Opponents say the blading of the remainder of the property will force transplanting or killing of hundreds of saguaros and disrupt wildlife corridors — although the prime corridor on the property, Enchanted Hills Wash, must be preserved under existing regulations.
They’re also concerned that the additional homes will jam already congested streets and aggravate already existing flooding risks in the area — problems the developers say they’ll address when and if the council approves their overall project.
Also hotly debated in this dispute is whether this project meets the city’s Tumamoc Area Plan, a 1998 document aimed at laying the foundation for how the general area’s fragile Sonoran Desert should be developed or in some cases preserved.
For council member Lane Santa Cruz, whose Ward 1 includes this parcel, “genuine and transparent public engagement is of utmost importance” for this project, her office said in an emailed statement to the Star.
Santa Cruz was unavailable for an interview. A spokesman, Ward 1 communications director Antonio Ramirez, said Santa Cruz was already booked with other matters last week when the Star sought to speak to Santa Cruz.
“Our office has heard a lot of opposition … and so council member Santa Cruz has informed the developer that without majority support, she/they
will not support the change of condition at this time,” the statement said.
Noting the COVID-19 pandemic has made public engagement much more challenging, the statement added that if the developer wishes to continue working with the neighbors to build consensus, “it’s going to take more time and a third-party facilitator that can hear neighbors’ concerns but also vision for this environmentally rich corner of our city.”
Keri Silvyn, attorney for developer Forestar Group Inc., said in a text message, “The developer and property owner are comfortable and willing to proceed with a third-party facilitator through the ward office as requested, and are hopeful the neighbors and constituents will engage in good faith toward a resolution.”
“What we’ve discovered as a region is that we want to encourage preservation of open space. To make that work, we’ve got to allow the private property owner to do development of the property” at higher densities away from open space, she said in an interview.
“We’ve also discovered we need to provide more houses. Prices are escalating. It’s a basic supply and demand. We need to create more supply. This is a good way of doing it while preserving the environment,” Silvyn said.
Development called “destructive”
West-side neighborhood leader Abreeza Zegeer said she’s not necessarily pleased with the delay and sees little chance of consensus. The most recently delayed hearing had been scheduled for Dec. 8.
“I wanted a public meeting before Christmas. I believe the developer has the right to have their, so to speak, day in court. I’d sooner go ahead and get it over with, but I have a funny feeling that they’ve been told as it stands that the neighborhood is totally against it,” said Zegeer, president of the West Side Development Neighborhood Association.
She sees little chance of neighbors living on lots of an acre and up accepting 4,000- to 5,000-square-foot lots nearby.
“To be honest; reaching consensus that we’d like a development where the houses are 10 feet apart right next to acre properties is not possible — and also because we are against removal of the zoning conditions,” Zegeer said.
“We are not an ‘infill’ project nor are we in a ‘blight zone.’ We are on the edge of the Tucson city limits in a more rural than urban environment with horse property sizes ranging from 0.826 to 5 acres,” the association wrote in a letter to the City Council opposing this project.
“We want responsible and appropriate development that keeps property sizes large and densities low to protect the fragile desert environment and to keep our property values strong. This type of development is destructive by its very nature.”
Surroundings are a mixed bag
The property’s setting reflects the different values and goals the two sides have raised.
To the parcel’s immediate north along La Cholla Boulevard is Hank Oyama Elementary School. To its east are town houses and higher-density homes than those proposed for the disputed parcel.
To its south is a desert section of the city’s Kennedy Park. To the parcel’s west and on land north of 36th Street is low-density housing, with Pima County’s Tucson Mountain Park standing still farther west. To the northeast is more county-owned open space.
The 1998 Tumamoc Area Plan, covering more than 10 square miles, offers a similarly mixed bag of visions and plans for this area.
Generally, it calls for residential development at “suburban densities” of one to two homes per acre and “mid-suburban densities” of two to four homes per acre. It says densities should decrease heading west toward the mountain park.
It also calls for cluster development of higher density housing on pockets of private property to allow the big wash to be preserved along with land south of it.
Cluster development packs lots of houses closer together in some sections of private land while leaving others open.
Silvyn and her adversaries have pointed to various sections of the area plan to back their views.
Silvyn notes that the plan for the entire Tumamoc area would allow 6.25 homes per acre in “mid-suburban” areas including West 36th Street and South La Cholla Boulevard, if at least 40% of that land is left natural, including washes.
This project would put 5.8 homes per acre in developed areas, while having 2.8 homes per acre when open space is taken into account.
Homes to be clustered in buildable areas
The project concentrates homes on the property’s most buildable areas, the developers say. It will serve as an appropriate transition to higher-density development west of La Cholla and lower densities to the west, Silvyn said.
She noted that many or all of the city’s planning policy documents, covering areas running as far east as Houghton Road, advocate cluster housing as a way to preserve private open space. They typically allow developers who do that “bonuses” of home densities higher than they could normally get on the built areas without clustering, she said.
“We are not doing that here. We are not increasing the density at all” beyond what’s normally allowed under the plan, Silvyn said.
Zegeer counters the developers are “cherry-picking” verbiage from the area plan. She notes, for instance, that the developer proposes to put homes south of Enchanted Hills Wash while the plan calls for preserving the area.
She says this development disregards the plan’s recommendations for decreasing densities farther to the west since higher densities persist in its western sections.
“It’s not really a cluster development,” she said. “In a true cluster, you would have a cluster of homes next to natural open space, and next to that is another cluster, surrounded by more open space — not 100 homes clustered around a small piece of open space like they do.”
Responding, Silvyn said the area plan doesn’t call for decreasing densities on this parcel as it moves west — only in the plan’s general areas. And the plan’s preservationist language for the area south of the wash could still allow some development — at reduced densities, she asserts.
This project’s total of 170 homes is only 20 more than would be allowed under the annexation condition the developers want removed, she said. Its large lot zoning still allows two mobile homes or standard tract homes per lot, she noted.
Zegeer harbors major doubts as to whether the current restrictions would ever allow for 150 homes because the Enchanted Hills wash and other washes cover so much ground that must be legally preserved.
“Best case under the current zoning with the restriction is 38 lots with 2 homes each,” or 76 houses, the west-side neighborhood group wrote in its letter to the city.
Silvyn counters that opponents ignore the fact that under current restrictions, lot owners can extend large lots into wash areas even though they can’t build there. This, she said, will create an “enforcement nightmare” when homeowners stealthily put structures on lots extending into washes, increasing home numbers.
How many saguaros will have to go?
As for the area’s iconic saguaros, the neighbors said they hand-counted every one on this property and totaled 1,000 on lands away from the Enchanted Hills Wash.
Under the city’s native plant law and rules, developers must leave them in place, transplant them or plant new saguaros to compensate for any destroyed.
Silvyn said that count likely overestimated the number by including those in areas not in the washes but that will be preserved. Activist Zegeer said taking out those areas from their count would probably remove at most 50 saguaros.
Speaking more generally, the neighbors’ opposition letter said that these “troubled times” emphasize the importance of access to natural areas and the ability to spend time outdoors as vital for mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health.
“Tucson has a treasure here 10 minutes from town. Why on earth would you want to approve what amounts to a high-density, infill housing project in such an unusual area?”