Corridor Controversy

Marana housing development raises concerns over I-10 wildlife corridor, conservation

By Eric Beidel,

April 12, 2006 – An abandoned railroad crossing just south of Avra Valley Road in Marana has sparked a seething debate between environmentalists and developers, with both groups tugging on the sleeves of local government officials.

Now mostly buried beneath the dirt, a set of Union Pacific Railroad tracks used to lead through a 25-foot-wide underpass, connecting freights to the tracks on the other side of Interstate 10.

The underpass provides the last viable route for animals to get across the interstate, avoiding the lights, noise and speed of traffic above, environmentalists claim.

Preserving land on both sides of the underpass would give wildlife a much needed buffer from human activity, they assert.

But environmentalists do not own the land, most of which developers have slated for houses.

This has created a chain of events where environmentalists lobby jurisdictions, who then meet with land owners in hopes of cutting a deal and saving portions of land from development.

The town of Marana has been meeting with Red Point Development President Larry Leung to discuss a small portion of the company’s planned 1,476-acre Cascada project, which would include more than 3,000 homes, businesses and offices.

Environmentalists and scientists have specific concern about 15 acres in the northwest portion of the proposed development, just east of the interstate and underpass. They want Red Point to dedicate the 15 acres as open space or Marana to buy the land and preserve it.

The parties have yet to settle the issue.

"We think we’ve done enough," Red Point Project Manager Cheryl Hall said. "We’ve provided open space where it makes sense."

The Cascada plan already contains almost 800 acres of open space, including land around seven natural washes that run diagonally across the property. Initial plans for the development included just 135 acres of open space.

Included in a later phase of development, the 15 acres in question would not see houses for several years, Hall explained.

Red Point has given Marana the option of buying the piece of land. Town officials have 10 years to make a decision.

They are considering their options.

"We’re in the bottom of the ninth inning with this," Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat said of the Cascada development, which could go to town council for approval this summer.

The town could use about $1 million in leftover mitigation fees from the Willow Ridge development to buy the land, Reuwsaat suggested.

The town could also get federal grants and still thinks the developer might simply "give it up," Reuwsaat added.

"(Marana) has 10 years to decide if they want to purchase it," Hall said firmly.

The town wants more information about the wildlife crossing before making a decision.

"Is it a viable crossing?" Reuwsaat wondered. "What are the impediments? You have two access roads and double-tracked trains."

Wildlife specialists from different groups have begun to monitor the area around the underpass. A good deal of time could pass before they have any concrete data.

Last week, the dirt in the underpass contained animal tracks, probably a dog or coyote.

Bobcats, mountain lions, foxes, small mammals and birds also use the underpass to get from the Tucson Mountains to the Tortolita and Catalina mountains and vice versa, U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Scott Richardson said.

Arizona Game and Fish Urban Wildlife Specialist Elissa Ostegaard recently saw javelina, rabbit and coyote tracks at the underpass, too.

In January, a car struck and killed a deer on the interstate right above the underpass.

Ostegaard and company just started tracking wildlife in the area around the underpass. The department also will collect road kill data for that stretch of the interstate.

"There are fewer and fewer opportunities to have a corridor," Ostegaard said. "Even this one is not a done deal."

Continental Ranch developer Greg Wexler owns land to the west of the interstate and underpass. Pima County has a tentative agreement with Wexler to buy 15 acres of his property for a little more than $700,000, Assistant County Administrator Nicole Fyffe explained.

The county continues to talk with Tom Parsons, who owns about 90 acres just north of Wexler’s property. The county seeks another 15 acres from Parsons, which would go a long way toward preserving land on both sides of the underpass.

However, Parsons wants Marana to annex his property into the town.

"Settle your deal with the county, then we’ll talk about (annexation)," Reuwsaat responded.

County voters in 1997 and 2004 passed bonds designating more than $174 million for open space acquisition. In June of 2004, the county formed a Conservation Acquisition Commission. The 11-member committee makes recommendations to the Pima County Board of Supervisors about purchasing lands for preservation.

The county has considered more than 2,500 acres in the Northwest for possible purchase. Last August, it acquired its only major Northwest property in Carpenter Ranch, a 560-acre area that will expand the Tortolita Mountain Park.

The county bought the property in two parts, starting with 200 acres in 1999. The cost of the purchases totaled $1.1 million.

Environmentalists think more can be done.

"It’s incredibly frustrating, the inactivity in the Northwest," said Jenny Neeley, southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife. "What happened to the 1997 and 2004 bond monies for the Northwest?"

Slightly less than $6 million remains from the 1997 money designated for open space acquisition. The county has $112 million left from the 2004 bond.

The county purposely considered more property than it could buy, because officials knew they would run into unwilling sellers. That has been the case in the Northwest, where land prices continue to soar, Fyffe said.

The county can only buy from those willing to sell their land, according to the bond ordinance.

Environmentalists showed up in force at the county’s conservation commission’s March meeting, expressing disappointment in the inactivity in the Northwest.

"Their method was counterproductive," commission member Chuck Pettis said. "They showed up and produced this litany."

If environmentalists can find willing land sellers, then the county will talk to them, he continued.

"Problem is, they’ve turned up people who allegedly want to sell their land, but then we talk to them and they don’t," Pettis said.

Red Point recently cancelled a meeting and called off talks with the county about selling land at Cortaro and Thornydale roads, Fyffe said.

The development company owns about 60 acres, just south of the Mason Audubon Center, which is at Thornydale and Hardy roads. The county had marked the land for possible purchase with bond monies.

Red Point cancelled the meeting because the county seemed to rush things, Hall explained.

"They sent us this application, and we were like, ‘Wait,’" she said. "We weren’t ready to meet."

Red Point will have the 60 acres appraised and complete the application, Hall said two weeks ago.

"Whether we can agree on a fair market price is yet to be seen," she added.

The county heard Red Point would want $5 million for the 60 acres, Fyffe said.

A similarly-zoned 40 acres (one house per 3.3 acres) on Thornydale recently sold for $1.5 million, or almost $39,000 per acre.

When Red Point draws plans for the 60 acres, it probably would want the land rezoned to get more bang for its buck. Neeley said she thinks the chances of getting that property rezoned "are slim to none."

Like the 15 acres in Cascada, the 60 acres holds remarkable importance to wildlife, environmentalists claim.

Before their number plummeted, a cactus ferruginous pygmy owl made its habitat in and around the 60 acres. In fact, Red Point posts "keep out" signs, warning of the pygmy owl.

Just one male owl remains in the Northwest.

"There are too many lights and noise, and they starve," Neeley explained. "There were some nests west of the Audubon center, but not now."

One of the last owls found dead in the Northwest had been killed by a housecat, Neeley said.

Environmentalists expect the owl to be removed from the endangered species list any day now. It was listed in 1997 but a lawsuit by homebuilders challenged the Fish and Wildlife Service’s methodology, and a federal appeals court ordered the FWS to review the listing. The service last year recommended the owl be removed from the list. Mandatory comment and review periods are about to expire.

"But I’m confident we’ll get it listed again," Neeley said.

The Tucson Audubon Society wants to acquire Red Point’s 60 acres for preservation, not to expand the Mason center as some have suggested, said Christina McVie, a member of the Audubon society’s board of directors and founder of Desert Watch, a citizens group consisting of scientists, conservationists and even landowners.

"We have no plans as far as ownership," she reiterated.

The county has no shot at the 60 acres until Red Point gets Cascada approved by Marana’s town council, McVie wryly predicted.

"But this is not an either-or question," she said. "It’s important what the county is doing. They just aren’t doing enough up here in the Northwest."

The state owns much of the land in the Northwest and particularly in Marana – 50 percent, or about 60 square miles. The county simply cannot buy that land right now, Fyffe said.

A few years ago, the Arizona Preservation Initiative gave state jurisdictions the upper hand when buying land for conservation.

Under the API, a jurisdiction could submit an application to the state land department, expressing interest in a piece of land for conservation. That land would then go to public auction with a restriction that the buyer could not develop it.

Of course, developers thought it unfair, and the state land laws got overhauled.

State land still goes to public auction, but developers have no trouble outbidding jurisdictions for unrestricted state land.

But another initiative recently has grown legs, which would preserve 333,000 acres of state trust land and set aside about 400,000 additional acres for cities, towns, counties and land trusts to buy.

Supporters of Conserving Arizona’s Future aim to preserve more than 23,000 acres in the Northwest, including parts of Catalina State Park, the southern and western foothills of Tortolita mountains, and Tortolita Mountain Park.

"They’ve mapped out the same places we did with the bond," Fyffe explained. "That initiative would be a huge help."

The initiative already has more signatures than it needs, which would put it on the November ballot for voters to decide.

If the town can buy 15 acres in Cascada and the county can buy 15 acres each from landowners west of the interstate, the underpass and surrounding buffer would be only partially complete.

Tucson Electric Power Co. has a utility corridor just north of Red Point’s 15 acres in Cascada.

"That’s a challenge," Reuwsaat said, adding that the town has not even contacted the power company about its land. The county has made contact with TEP, but talks have yet to progress beyond the initial stages.

Cascada’s 15 acres have been bladed so much that most of the vegetation has died, Marana Assistant Town Manager Gilbert Davidson noted.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to replant the area if all the impending land deals go through, Richardson said.

"This wildlife crossing is absolutely the only solution to the connectivity problem," Neeley proclaimed.

Red Point has done more than enough to accommodate wildlife, Hall said.

"I’m sure that wildlife go through there all the time. But we think they can get through just fine" without giving up the 15 acres, Hall added.

Cascada plans once included more than 8,000 homes, a 208-acre commercial center and 124-acre employment center. The plans have shrunk to 3,500 homes, a 31-acre commercial center and a 31-acre employment center.

Not to mention increasing the amount of open space by 650 acres.

As Pima County decides how to spend its remaining open space bond money, Leung and Red Point may be talking to government officials about more than just Cascada and the property near the Audubon center.

The county has its eye on two more Red Point-owned lands, both 20-acre parcels in the Northwest.