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Saguaros' Sake

Friends of Painted Hills continue to fight a proposed cluster subdivision

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Walking with Lissa Gibbs and Judith Meyer near the site of a proposed cluster subdivision, it's easy to understand why the Pima County Board of Supervisors recently decided to look for a way to essentially take back a green light given to a project that could put 260 homes on 286 acres.

The Painted Hills area is thick with fully mature saguaros, directly south of Speedway Boulevard on the ascent toward Gates Pass and west of Anklam Road.

"This is not about 'not in my backyard,'" says Gibbs, of Friends of Painted Hills. "This is about my children, your children and what kind of community we leave for them. Late at night, I began to think about the saguaros out here. That's how it started for me."

Gibbs adds that she sees a serious need for all county residents to stand up and demand that water planning is sensible and sustainable.

"What are we leaving of the desert for our children to know? And how will anyone be able to live here in 50 years without a more coordinated water-use and growth plan? How does sprawl continue to happen?" she asks.

Just outside of the development's property line, Gibbs and Meyer (of the Tucson Mountains Association) walk among creosote bushes, ocotillo and barrel cactus, looking at the hillsides where the giant saguaros reach up into the sky. Meyer points out the nests carved out at the tops of most of the saguaros, as a hawk catches the wind currents above.

Gibbs and other Painted Hills residents filed a lawsuit against the county and formed the Friends of Painted Hills when the county told her last August that she had no right to appeal a county Design Review Committee decision that allows the property to be developed under a cluster-subdivision option.

Officials from Pima County Development Services say cluster subdivisions allow high-density development on small parcels of land without compromising more open space. Critics use Painted Hills as an example to show that they can also offer a loophole to developers: Cluster subdivisions like Painted Hills effectively create a de facto rezoning with less scrutiny while ignoring the guidelines in the county's Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

Gibbs and her neighbors' lawsuit alleges that the county violated their due-process rights, because the cluster-subdivision language does not require the county or developers to notify neighbors or environmental organizations about cluster-option projects. Under current rules, only developers can appeal decisions, if the project isn't approved. Gibbs began to walk the neighborhood and hand out fliers to drivers, bicyclists and walkers going along Speedway adjacent to the property.

"Most people assume the property can't be developed," Gibbs says. "Many thought it was open space. But it is private property."

County residents have twice voted for Pima County to purchase the property in bond elections; however, the county each time reportedly wound up short of funds.

On April 8, the Pima County Board of Supervisors requested a contract with an independent lawyer to determine if the county can legally make cluster-ordinance revisions retroactive--a move which could change or end the proposed Painted Hills development.

"We found ourselves in a difficult predicament. Now we found an opportunity to fix it," says Pima County Board of Supervisors Chairman Richard Elías.

On Feb. 15, the Planning and Zoning Commission approved revisions in the cluster-development option, one of which would allow property owners and environmental organizations to appeal Design Review Committee approvals. However, the Pima County Attorney's Office recommended against allowing the revisions to be retroactive.

Gibbs emphasizes that she and her neighbors are not necessarily opposed to the development or the Las Vegas development company in charge of the project, LandBaron Investments. Gibbs also doesn't lay any blame on the Dallas (Texas) Police and Fire Pension System, which purchased the property last year for $27 million from John Tate.

Gibbs says she recognizes the property is privately owned and now priced beyond the county's budget. (In one year the purchase price of the property went from $4.25 million to $27 million.) What Gibbs and others want is a development that fits the area.

While Friends of Painted Hills are heartened by the supervisors' renewed interest in cluster-option revisions, they are concerned any attorney hired by the county may not be independent enough.

"It is going to take some faith," Elías responds. "We are not out to sell Painted Hills down the river."

Elías says the county's motivation does not come from the lawsuit filed by Gibbs and other Painted Hills residents. Rather, those residents and others who effectively lobbied the county to make the revisions and consider a retroactive policy, he says.

Gibbs credits Tucson Mountain Association president Meyer, a retired attorney who wrote a letter to the supervisors, as did attorney Katharina Richter of Friends of Madera Canyon, stating that a retroactive policy is within the county's legal rights.

Both letters countered a Feb. 25 letter to the planning division from LandBaron attorney Keri Silvyn, of Lewis and Roca. Silvyn warned the county that applying cluster revisions retroactively is "unconstitutional," because the development has completed its county review process.

According to Pima County Planning Director Arlan Colton, however, the review process is not complete. LandBaron has filed tentative plans, but is still making its way through additional requests made by county planners to meet requirements.

Colton says the cluster revisions remain on hold until the independent attorney evaluates a retroactive policy, a process which could take six weeks.

"It's important to know that the cluster option has been around for decades," Colton says. "But this is the first time we've had significant issues."

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