Riparian rules could stiffen

Riparian rules could stiffen

Riverfront plant communities:

Along perennial or intermittent streams: Cottonwood, Gooding willow, mesquite, sycamore, canyon hackberry, elderberry and Arizona ash trees, seep and coyote willows, desert honeysuckle and sacaton shrubs, and deer and panic grasses.

Along streams that run only after storms: Mesquite, palo verde, desert willow and ironwood trees, desert hackberry, desert honeysuckle, desert lavender and wolfberry shrubs, and sand top seed and green sprangletop grasses

County supervisors to vote on change Aug. 2
By Tony Davis
ARIZONA DAILY STAR , Monday 6-13-05

Private landowners face stricter regulation when they build along rivers and washes lined with cottonwood, mesquite and palo verde trees.

Pima County plans to revise its riverfront protection law later this summer to add thousands of privately owned acres.

Last week, county supervisors delayed voting on the revised law for the second time in two months, this time to Aug. 2.

Developers, ranchers and other landowners complained that many affected owners still don’t know about the proposals and that different versions of the proposed law caused confusion.

County officials want to add more areas for protection along some of the region’s most prominent rivers and washes, such as the Rillito River and Pantano and Brawley washes.

That’s in part because some have recovered many of the trees and shrubs they lost during huge floods in the 1980s. Also, more sophisticated satellite and mapping technology have uncovered additional areas worthy of protection, officials say.

These sites, called riparian areas, are prized by biologists because they contain the richest plant and animal life in this arid region. They’re also rare. Eighty percent to 95 percent have disappeared in the past century due to human pressures.

Under current law, anyone blading as little as one-third of an acre of such areas that already are protected must plant at least one other acre in riverfront vegetation. Or, owners can buy and preserve another acre of existing riparian land for every acre developed.

Today, two to five landowners each month troop to county government to get development plans approved for these areas.

At a public hearing last week, landowners warned the proposed revisions could boost housing prices by putting more property owners through red tape.

"The average person cannot afford to buy the average home here," testified Curt Stinson, a real estate broker. "If you continue to drive up the cost of development, you will continue to see this problem."

Landowners want to increase the minimum amount of development that would cause the preservation rules to kick in.

The Metropolitan Pima Alliance, a business trade group, urged the board to change it from one-third of an acre to either a third of an acre or 5 percent of an owner’s total land holding – whichever is greater.

There’s no reason someone developing an acre should face the same rules as someone developing 50 acres, testified Kathleen Longnecker, the alliance’s director.

Landowners also asked that the county’s chief flood control engineer get the power to act on his own – without Board of Supervisors approval – to adjust protected-area boundaries if the county’s mapped boundaries prove inaccurate.

Environmentalists and the county’s Science Technical Advisory Team wanted to extend protection to the least densely vegetated sections of riverfront area, called xeroriparian, Class D, because they can still dissipate floods and are rich in seasonal forbs and annual shrubs.

They also wanted the law to protect not just trees and shrubs but the entire habitat containing those plants, to make the area function better for wildlife.

"The Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan continues to be a model for the country, and one reason is that you have established science as a foundation for that plan," testified Jenny Neeley, Southwest associate for Defenders of Wildlife. "By setting up the science team, you put up a firewall, protecting the plan from politics. Now, take the science team to heart."

The board agreed to broaden the definition of protected areas to all habitat, and to give the county engineer more power to set riparian area boundaries.

The lower-class riparian areas will be studied for 120 days.

But County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said he will not support raising the thresholds for land protection to let developers of small parcels off the hook.

The law’s biggest unknown is how much land will actually be protected.

At the end of April, Suzanne Shields, the county’s flood control director, said the ordinance covers 70,000 acres of private land, and the changes would add 18,000 more. Last week, her staff said it’s revising those figures.

Contact reporter Tony Davis at 807-7790 or