A PLUMP LIZARD skitters across the road as a green Japanese sedan whips into TUSD'S otherwise silent Ajo Service Center on West 44th Street. Barrel cacti sprout like squat green whiskers alongside the tan buildings, and spread into the maw of a nearby canyon. Even the obligatory Harris hawk soars elegantly overhead on this cool Tuesday morning.
In other words, it's just the kind of scene Tucson boosters love to tout with a handshake and a cheesy brochure.
If only that were the whole picture.
Unfortunately, there's a nasty battle brewing behind this bucolic backdrop, pitting the Tucson Unified School District against angry area residents. If TUSD has its way, the patch of desert will soon become a 7.5-acre, $2.5 million depot hub for up to 80 buses, along with concomitant traffic and pollution problems.
Not surprisingly, the feud has also become an election-year slugfest, with officials heaving barbs at one another, and District 5 Supervisor Raul Grijalva reporting that county officials might even try to squelch the fiery tempest through a land swap. A Democrat, Grijalva is stumping for re-election against Republican opponent Rosalie Lopez, who also happens to sit on the TUSD Governing Board.
And Lopez is raising a ruckus--one that critics suggest has more to do with milking a potential campaign cow than assisting residents. But she says she's been fighting to get more information on the project since last year, when she fired off several memos to former TUSD Superintendent George Garcia requesting details. But every time she asked Garcia to put the issue to the board's meeting agenda, "he didn't just say no, but hell no," she says.
Nor did other school board members support her requests, Lopez says, since "George wanted the project."
As for the outraged folks on 44th Street, "Well, they have a right to be," she says. "I am furious over this."
Meanwhile, TUSD's plan is just hitting home in the middle-class neighborhood of low-slung ranch houses surrounding the depot site. The settlement lies in the shadows of county-owned Tucson Mountain Park, on the lush flanks of the city's Kennedy Park.
Dismissing the political intrigue, neighborhood resident Paul Pierce keeps things simple. "TUSD's plan is hideous," says the heating and cooling contractor. "It's totally inappropriate for a small residential area right up against the fence of Tucson Mountain Park. The other fence is the backside of Kennedy Park. So you can have a nice little picnic there sitting right next to 80 idling buses."
Neighbors also worry about increased traffic on La Cholla, a rolling, two-lane blacktop reworked by the city a few years back to include broad bike lanes. La Cholla's backroads ambiance would disappear if TUSD has its way, Pierce says. "And the pollution these buses put out would be sucked right into the coolers of folks like me."
And of course, no modern Tucson battle would be complete without a pygmy owl swooping into the fray. "The (Tucson Mountain) Park has been designated as critical pygmy owl habitat," says Jeff Humphrey, a Phoenix spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Any possible modification near that habitat is something a federal agency would have to evaluate."
TUSD would first need a stormwater discharge permit from the EPA, thereby placing the owl front-and-center, he says. "The school district is going to have to make an exact determination of what effect their activities may have on the pygmy owl. In order to have that permit in place, (TUSD) will probably have to demonstrate that an owl is not present (on the district property), or if one is present, what they're doing to mitigate any effects upon it."
So far, TUSD muckety-mucks--other than Lopez, apparently--seem a bit startled at the uproar. For her part, district Governing Board President Marybelle McCorkle wastes little time in cutting Pierce and other naysayers down to size. "We're very concerned that some are making a mountain out of a molehill with this," she says. "Sometimes there can be just 10 people that are unhappy, and there are a hundred that don't care." Either way, "There's no question that we need this (depot) very badly," McCorkle says, adding that the issue "just came to the surface rather suddenly."
What she might mean is that the battle hit the public front-burner rather suddenly, since her board overwhelmingly voted to fund the project way back on July 6, 1999 (Lopez was the lone dissenter). On June 20 of this year, the body also approved a licensing agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy concerning power lines running through the site. Considered on a consent agenda--a grouping of items the board approves as a package--it passed unanimously.
McCorkle may have ultimately received a louder earful than she bargained for at a school board meeting last week. The gathering drew a newly energized--and righteously pissed--band of citizens, stoked by Lopez.
But even as Lopez heaps blame on her colleagues, she's ducking political dung heaved from the sidelines. José Ibarra represents the 44th Street area on the City Council. Although not currently running for anything himself, he's generally considered a Grijalva partisan, and can't resist a swipe at Lopez. "I mean, here's a chance for TUSD to actually invest in the south and west side of Tucson," he says. "And what do we get? We get a bus station. That's where I really look at Rosalie Lopez and think to myself, what kind of a southside advocate do we really have there?
"She has not stood up and said, 'Lookit, this is something that just can't happen.' She's just let it slide by."
When pressed on the budding battle between Lopez and Grijalva, Ibarra--who squeaked by in his re-election last year--says he's "far too busy serving his constituents" to fret over such pedestrian matters.
For his part, Grijalva deftly dodges the political fish-fry, instead simply calling the depot site "a really poor choice. And it's a choice that's going to cause TUSD a lot of anxiety, because you not only have neighborhood opposition to it, but there are environmental issues as well." He calls it "a thorn" in the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, a county-driven strategy to preserve vast stretches of open space.
He also says a land swap may be in the offing. "We're trying to patch together Tucson Mountain Park and some other areas that the county has gone forward and acquired in that general area. Chuck (Huckleberry) will be looking into that really soon."
Any solution can't come too soon for Paul Pierce. In the meantime, folks around 44th Street will keep the heat on TUSD, he says, regardless of the political sloganeering it sparks. "This kind of sleazy approach puts even (Tucson land speculator) Don Diamond to shame," he says.
"The district knows about all the problems with their plan, and they're still going forward with it," he says. "But we're fighting it, and we're going to keep on fighting it until we win."
And the politicians are likely to keep playing this card for all its worth as well. In this case, it seems only the humble pygmy owl will retain a dignified silence.