Owl’s delisting today opens builders’ horizons

By Tony Davis

Homes galore
Projects pending in pygmy owl habitat could proceed quickly if the bird is removed from the endangered species list:
l Summit Vistas: 260 apartments and four commercial buildings on 21 acres at Linda Vista Road and Camino de Oeste in unincorporated Pima County.

l De Anza: 310 single-family homes on 133 acres near Camino de Oeste and Hartman Lane in Marana.

l Preserve at Dove Mountain: Adds 65 acres to a previously approved 237 acres of development at Tangerine Road and Dove Mountain Boulevard in Marana, for a total of 630 homes and 62 acres of commercial projects.

l Las Rocas on Camino de Oeste: 20 homes on 65 acres, near Sunset Road and Camino de Oeste in Marana.

l Mission Peaks: 4,000-acre project, located about a mile south of Helmet Peak Road and split nearly in half by Mission Road in unincorporated Pima County near Sahuarita. The project also lies in endangered Pima pineapple cactus habitat, meaning it would still need a separate federal clearance even if the pygmy owl were delisted.

l Cahaza Springs: 22 homes on 98 acres in the Gold Canyon area southeast of Phoenix.
l Total: 1,242 homes plus an unknown number in Mission Peaks, on 4,382 acres.
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Today is D-Day for the pygmy owl, more than nine years after it was listed as endangered by the federal government.

At 12:01 a.m. today, the delisting of the 7-inch, reddish-brown bird took effect. That removed all federal restrictions on development of prime owl habitat on Tucson’s growing Northwest Side — restrictions that had frustrated developers but pleased environmentalists. The elimination of regulations could quickly free up hundreds if not thousands of acres of land for development and make it easier to develop hundreds of thousands more acres over the next few decades.

Early this afternoon, however, a federal judge has scheduled a hearing in Phoenix on two environmental groups’ efforts to overturn the federal government’s decision last month removing the bird from the endangered species list.

The stakes are high. Despite a decade of development, large amounts of old-growth, ironwood-saguaro habitat scientists consider important for the bird still exist near the Tortolita Mountains and elsewhere on the Northwest Side. And some of that land has been planned and zoned for residential development, meaning much of it likely would be bladed if the owl weren’t protected.

If U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton rules in the environmentalists’ favor, the delisting and land development will remain on hold for now. Ultimately, the judge would have to make a more detailed ruling on whether to grant an injunction, blocking the delisting for an extended period.

If Bolton rules in the government’s favor, it will remove the biggest hurdle blocking immediate development of five projects in Arizona and make it easier to build a sixth. Delisting would also void past federal agreements protecting hundreds or thousands of other acres on the Northwest Side.

Detailed studies
At issue in the owl controversy has been the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s standard practice of requiring detailed studies of a project’s effects on the owl whenever another federal agency determined that the project might affect it.

Those studies can last a few months to a few years and result in requirements that developers save 30 percent to 80 percent of their property or buy additional land for owl protection. The time and expense have angered both sides, with developers objecting to the delays and costs, and environmentalists saying they’re often not enough to protect the rare bird’s habitat.
The pygmy owl has been found in declining numbers in recent years both on the Northwest Side and throughout Southern Arizona. This year, surveyors have found 13 adult owls statewide and one on the Northwest Side, compared with 34 to 41 statewide in the late 1990s and 12 on the Northwest Side in 1996.

But the wildlife service determined last month that the owl’s delisting should go forward because it could not prove the bird’s demise in Arizona would have a significant effect on its global status because it is far more abundant in Mexico. It is that conclusion that the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife are challenging in a lawsuit, filed Thursday.

Huge acreage involved
Delisting the owl would free up nearly 500,000 acres of proposed prime owl habitat in Southern Arizona from federal development restrictions.

About 145,000 acres are private and 350,000 are state-owned, which by law must return the maximum revenue for public schools, usually by selling it off for development. Some land probably would be preserved under a proposed constitutional amendment going before a voters this fall.

More immediately, delisting would remove federal oversight on five pending projects, totaling 1,242 homes on more than 300 acres.

Officials from companies handling two of those projects —Cottonwood Properties and Emery Stephen Holdings — could not be reached Friday.
Some of 17 other Northwest Side projects for which the wildlife service had previously required open space conservation would now be free to develop on that open space. That’s because delisting would void any land-saving requirement the federal government handed down while the bird was listed.

Only projects that also had local government space-saving requirements would still be forced to save that land if the owl listing disappeared.
The Tortolita Preserve, for example, is a 2,400-acre park in Marana created to compensate for the effects of building 6,500 homes and three golf courses at Dove Mountain in the Tortolita Mountain foothills.

Marana has no intention of opening up that land, which includes a nine-mile hiking trail and draws about 50 visitors a week, said Tom Ellis, the town’s parks director.

Marana Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat and Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said they also would not recommend that their governments junk past open-space agreements if the federal listing goes away.

But Jenny Neeley of Defenders of Wildlife said those promises don’t negate the need for protecting the owl because future public officials could easily kill those land-saving agreements.

Contact reporter Tony Davis at 806-7746 or tdavis@azstarnet.com.