For years, the community of Oracle has been a scrappy opponent of cookie-cutter subdivisions, with their gravel lawns and pink tile roofs. Now, with growth marching relentlessly north from Tucson, some residents view incorporation into a city or town as their last chance to avoid being swallowed up by development, and have started an incorporation petition drive.
They have a fight on their hands.
Biosphere 2, a fixture of the Oracle area and a major employer there, is screaming about being included in its proposed incorporation boundaries. General Manager Chris Bannon provided ubiquitous "NO-INCORPORATION" signs around town and promises to use legal means to fight the move if approved by residents.
"We will look at every means to challenge it," he told the Weekly after he spoke for the opposition in a May 14 debate in front of more than 200 residents. "We are not anti-incorporation. We just don't think we should have been dragged to the party."
Since Columbia University vacated Biosphere 2 last year, the campus and surrounding acreage--zoned for 3,000 homes--are up for sale. If Oracle incorporates, instead of the cozy relationship Biosphere 2 now enjoys with Pinal County's District One Supervisor Lionel Ruiz, its future developers will have to deal with an Oracle town council, which could impose millions of dollars in impact fees and construction sales taxes, neither of which the county currently collects.
"The Biosphere's a part of Oracle. It always has been," said Oracle Incorporation Committee member Phil Hawes, who served as architect of record for Biosphere 2. "Why shouldn't they pay for the community they're part of?"
Other big landowners have followed Biosphere 2's lead. Texas billionaire Ed Bass, Catalina land baron Lloyd Golder and SaddleBrooke mogul Ed Robson also want their properties stricken from the proposed boundary map and may consider legal action otherwise.
Inside Oracle, the committee has been criticized for rushing the boundary map and petition process and failing to engage the entire community, especially local businesses, ahead of time. Committee members say that opponents simply pull down their notices and flyers offering public meetings and a regular Wednesday night forum at the local senior center.
At last month's public debate, Betty Harmon, an attorney and 32-year resident of the town, explained the committee's sense of urgency.
"We need either two-thirds of registered voters to sign its petitions, or 10 percent to hold an election. It takes 60 days to call an election, and there are only four days a year that the election can be held," she said. "Time was of the essence as we prepared this."
The incorporation committee registered as political action March 17 and filed for a petition number with the county director of elections on April 8. The committee held a public meeting April 9 and 11 to inform the community, with about 100 to 150 people in attendance at each meeting.
"After that, Chris Bannon came unglued and started yelling at everybody," Harmon said. "He said they were going to put a stop to it." The group now has 180 days to circulate petitions and educate the people of Oracle on the issue.
Bannon offered to pay for a "redraw" of the map and a new survey to exclude Biosphere 2. The committee declined. "We've always thought of the Biosphere as a part of the community," Harmon said. "And if we redraw the map, it means throwing out signatures and starting over."
Bob Skiba, a retired mine industry administrator and lobbyist who has lived in Oracle since 1959, spearheaded the anti-incorporation effort now funded by Biosphere 2 and unnamed supporters. He now holds opposition meetings on Thursday nights at the courthouse.
"I heard we want to keep development out of Oracle. That's what raised the hair on the back of my neck," he said. "In the 1960s, Lamar Cotton brought water up to Oracle from the junction. Developer wasn't a dirty word in those days. Many of us hauled our own water before that. Did Cotton pay impact fees? No! That's free enterprise at work. We don't have a sufficient tax base to support running our own government. In time, we will."
Hawes countered, "There is no economic base right now. That's absolutely correct--who can argue with that? The tax base here now is nothing, but my God, what's coming!"
Steve Brown, director of building safety for Pinal County, said the county has approved 113,000 new homes in Oracle and the surrounding region. "It's slow in Oracle now, but the projected growth is phenomenal," he said. "Within the next 5 to 10 years, it will be very significant."
On April 21, Fairfield Homes' Cielo, a master planned community of 3,000 homes slated to go in across the highway from Oracle (pop. 3,500-4,500), entered into an agreement with the incorporated town of Mammoth, seven miles away, to have the town operate Cielo's water and sewer systems. David Williamson, company president, said the homes will be built in the next year or two. The two parties have also had discussions about the annexation of Cielo into Mammoth. If that happened, Mammoth could block Oracle's attempt to incorporate.
Sahuarita Town Attorney Dan Hochuli has been on both sides of the incorporation fence. He's seen Sahuarita through its incorporation to become a town and represented Marana in Tucson's successful fight to prevent Tortolita and Casas Adobes from incorporating.
"Small communities have a lot of Hatfield and McCoy feuds. It interferes with trying to do the right thing," he said. "Tortolita had it right. They wanted to stay rural. When you have a rural community that wants to stay rural, that's when you should incorporate to have local control over your future. But you need enough growth to support a municipality."
Many in Oracle fear increased taxes. At a recent anti-incorporation meeting, Skiba supporter William Blomquist, who's lived in the area since 1957 and taught high school biology at San Manuel High School, said he's a taxpayer on a fixed income. "I don't want to pay any more taxes," he said. "I don't like the way they've handled this--it's very dirty."
Retired businessman Charlie Clark, whose family has been in the area since 1863, said that the comprehensive planning committee that helped develop Oracle's Area Plan--of which he was a member--favored development fees and unanimously agreed that development should pay for itself.
"But it could be a very big gamble if it divides the community. Those can be wounds that never heal."