In a rare and inspiring example of how local government is supposed to work, a majority of P&Z members stood up to God and mammon, rejecting a proposed big-box abomination for the corner of Ina Road and La Cholla Boulevard.
The 13-acre site on the rapidly metastasizing northwest side is currently the property of the quickly expanding Casas Adobes Baptist Church, whose annoyingly self-righteous officials want a rezoning so they can sell to the annoyingly smug Lowe's Home Improvement Centers for $5.8 million.
Nearby residents don't contest the fact that the property will eventually have to go commercial.
But a big majority of them resent the fact that the church wants to sell out to Lowe's, which is willing to cram its big box hard against existing homes, on a too-small lot served by woefully inadequate roads.
The church, located at the site for 37 years, has already built a far more grandiose monument to its specific notion of God about four miles north on La Cholla.
Church officials told commissioners they need the full $5.8 million to continue doing their good works. But the case they made sounded more like a whiny demand for a government subsidy than it did a well-reasoned discussion of the merits of the proposed project.
"We need to sell the site for enough money to complete our transition," the Rev. Glenn Barteau, a personable and well-poised young man confidently told the commissioners.
Apparently more than three decades of tax-free property use just isn't enough for a major community religious organization in these financially bleak times.
Even more amazingly, P&Z members rejected the deal despite the fact that county planners had given them an easy way out, by recommending approval -- although somewhat unenthusiastically, in the world-weary way of lifer bureaucrats who've learned to bend with the prevailing winds.
"About halfway through the meeting, some developers asked me how I thought it was going," says Peter Vokac, a longtime community organizer who led the opposition to the proposed rezoning. "I said we still had a 50-50 chance, but I could tell they felt we were going to lose. So the final vote was a pleasant surprise. Nobody could have predicted it, but our hard work and our earnestness paid off."
However, area residents -- more than 500 of whom sent letters of protest to the commissioners -- aren't out of this particular squall just yet. A supermajority on the Pima County Board of Supervisors could conceivably override P&Z's recommendation, thus restoring the developer-toadying, money-worshipping government-as-usual we've come to expect around here.
Observers say a vote could come anywhere from two to three weeks to a couple of months.
But for now at least, P&Z's apparently open and above-board decision stands in stark contrast to the Tucson City Council's mealy-mouthed muddling through El Con Mall's big-box battle last year.
In that disgraceful episode a City Council majority talked of preserving neighborhood property values and quality of life. But when push came to shove, they voted in favor of powerful commercial and political forces bent on plopping a massive and freakishly out-of-place Home Depot in the middle of some of Tucson's older, more gracious residential neighborhoods.
The county P&Z members, on the other hand, seemed refreshingly immune to special interests, and much more concerned with the proposed 165,000-square-foot Lowe's impact on the area's badly clogged roads, worried neighbors and nearby Amphi School District's Marion Donaldson Elementary School.
Residents and several commissioners alike referred to Ina-La Cholla traffic as an on-going "disaster," and noted that a recently approved Wal-Mart nearby is expected to add 8,000 to 9,000 auto trips a day to the area, while Lowe's would add another 5,000 to 7,000 trips on top of that.
Lowe's, the nation's third-largest retailer of household goods, which employs 90,000 workers in more than 600 stores in 38 states, has offered to contribute roughly $400,000 to road improvements.
But critics complained the earliest the first phase of such improvements could be completed would be roughly a year after the store itself was open for business, subjecting students at nearby Donaldson to undue risks.
In this regard, church supporters didn't help their cause by pointing out all the good things Casas Adobes Baptist Church does for its southside sister congregations, as well as its many youth programs. The effect was to further the appearance of special interests willing to sacrifice one group of children -- unrepentant public school rabble? -- for the sake of those supposedly nearer and dearer to God.
And beyond phase one of the road improvements, the critics countered, the full slate of improvements to La Cholla, which county officials maintain has always been viewed as a potential major north-south artery, won't be completed for roughly five years.
Church officials pointed out that their facility has been a major draw in the area for decades, with five Sunday services, a K-8th-grade school for 400 students, a daycare for nearly 400 additional kids during the week, plus a full cafeteria and numerous other activities every night.
But Barteau stretched credulity when he earnestly, though somewhat glibly, told the commissioners that Lowe's -- plus six smaller retailers occupying an additional 16,000 square feet on a corner of the proposed Lowe's inadequate parking lot -- would mean "a change in use, not a change in intensity."
And never mind the 30-foot-high rear wall of the big box that adjacent residents would have to look at when they peeked out their back windows. The ill-conceived plan calls for Lowe's backside to be a mere 60 feet from the nearest residential neighbors, idling tractor-trailer rigs and all.
At one point, one of the church supporters said, in effect, a giant wall blocking the neighbors' view didn't seem to be such a terrible price to pay to further God's will, since people could still look higher up in the sky. Or was he referring to heaven?
The frosting on the credulity cake came, however, when P&Z Commissioner William Hausman asked Casas Adobes' senior pastor, the Rev. Roger Barrier, to explain what he'd meant in a letter to members calling the church's rezoning request a "spiritual battle." (The church had also sent out cards with boxes for its members to check indicating how much time they intended to spend in prayer and fasting to ensure this real-estate deal goes through.)
Barrier, a handsome, self-assured man, launched into an extended and well-spoken riff on the story of Job, a devoted worshipper whom God allowed Satan to afflict with all manner of suffering.
When Hausman brought Barrier back to the mundane world of rezoning by asking him what the hell he was getting at, Barrier explained that God allowed Job to see that his suffering was due to a battle between good and evil going on in heaven.
"We really believe that everything we can see on this earth involves a struggle behind the scenes," Barrier explained.
It was an astonishing moment, one that seemed uniquely -- and, quite frankly, rather joyously -- American. Here was a minor appointed public official asking a powerful community religious leader to explain a religiously oriented statement put forth in the heat of public debate.
Barrier did so with no apparent hesitation or embarrassment, even though it revealed a patently absurd, self-serving tautology: We are fighting for good; therefore, those who oppose us are -- knowingly or unknowingly -- on the side of Satan.
And fervent, Bible-thumping Christians wonder why other Americans tend to view them as potential wingnuts, ready to spin out of control at a moment's notice.
Naturally the commissioners had the good sense to keep their reactions to themselves, since the audience was overwhelmingly composed of Baptists. They were a decent, well-mannered flock, of course; but when Baptist audience members stood up at Barteau's request earlier in the meeting, the floor of the Community Center's Leo Rich Theatre had trembled.
Barrier's self-righteous spiritual justification was especially damaging in light of church officials' clumsy attempts to throw money at neighborhood residents.
Those living within 300 feet of the proposed big box were offered what some critics called "bribes," of roughly $15,000, although one woman said she was offered $30,000.
At first, residents told the commissioners, the money was offered in exchange for their verbal support of the project, but later the money was offered with no strings attached.
The Rev. Barteau explained the church was merely trying its best to respond to the neighbors' requests and was innocently attempting to soothe their worries, real or imagined, in a spirit of generosity.
But community activist Vokac labels the Baptists' cash blandishments as a cynical attempt to pit neighbor against neighbor and have their way in a divided community.
God only knows what the church officials' motivations were in this case. But one thing is apparent: The well-meaning members of Casas Adobes Baptist Church need to learn a new word.
"Enantidromia," or play of opposites, is a term of Greek origin which refers to the paradoxical phenomenon whereby something eventually turns into its opposite. Too much of a good thing becomes bad, and vice versa. It's a difficult concept to grasp, especially for congenitally insecure people like the Rev. Barrier, who proudly admits to seeing everything in terms of black and white, good and evil, God and Satan.
Ironically, Peter Vokac suggests that maybe the word of God was spoken after all, and in the heat of their imagined "spiritual battle" church officials weren't listening.
The fact that Vokac and his neighbors -- some of whom are church members who disagreed with their pastors' sale plans -- were victorious, in this round at least, would indicate the Supreme Being herself does not see the world in the Rev. Barrier's stark shades of black and white.
At any rate, Vokac says, the neighbors who will be affected by this rezoning are more than willing to sit down with church leaders and hammer out a more acceptable plan.
"We'd like to help them come up with a plan to maximize everyone's enjoyment of the area," Vokac says.
Obviously, God would approve.