Furor erupts over Marana housing plan

NW Explorer

By: Eric Beidel

November 28, 2007

A future housing development in Marana has come under fire from conservationists and neighbors, who say the town council approved plans last month with little regard for the environment and neighboring homes.

The council on Oct. 2 voted unanimously to rezone 133 acres east of Interstate 10 and just north of Cortaro Road. The action created the DeAnza Specific Plan, which calls for a 311-lot subdivision by Red Point Development.

Environmentalists and neighbors say that the planned development represents another example of Marana’s haphazard planning. They say that the plan ignores the consequences of building on sensitive lands and would create a traffic nightmare.

The town disagrees and says the planned development represents an exciting new kind of subdivision for Southern Arizona, one that balances suburban living and natural open spaces.

Carolyn Nessinger, a resident in nearby Cortaro Ranch, has begun collecting signatures in an effort to have voters settle the matter.

The Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection opposes the DeAnza plan, too.

Citizens have until Dec. 9 to collect about 600 signatures. The issue could appear on a March ballot.

“The referendum is really on the town,” coalition Executive Director Carolyn Campbell said. “It’s really just trying to keep them honest.”

Campbell is one of many working with the town to create a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP), which aims to create a specific give-and-take process between the environment and development.

However, she says the town seems to ignore the very principals it seeks to create with the HCP.

Red Point Development owns the property now rezoned for the subdivision. The company has clashed with environmentalists before.

North of the DeAnza project lies more than 1,000 acres dubbed Cascada, which borders an important wildlife corridor. After much wrangling, Red Point decided it would not build houses on 15 acres near an Interstate 10 underpass that animals use to avoid traffic.

It appears Red Point is bending again to environmentalists’ wills.

The company has a meeting this week with Campbell and the coalition to discuss possible changes to its DeAnza plan.

Red Point probably will reduce the housing density on the site, going from 311 units to about 250, General Manager Larry Kreis said.

This would create more open space, a major sticking point for those who oppose the plan.

Pima County has spent more than $3 million in the area buying land from developers to keep it free of homes. The theory is that one open space eventually abuts another, creating connectivity for wildlife between mountain habitats.

The DeAnza plan currently calls for 31 percent of undisturbed open space, not even half of what environmentalists want.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has earmarked the property for 70 to 80 percent open space.

Portions of the Hardy Wash run through the property. The wash contains an important riparian habitat and provides a corridor in which wildlife can move, environmentalists say.

As it stands, the DeAnza plan calls for turning some of that sensitive habitat into a cement drainage channel. This would destroy all of the riparian areas on the site, environmentalists contend.

The wash already has fallen victim to beer bottles, four-wheelers and other trash. And a portion of the wash’s banks that divides the DeAnza property from existing houses in Cortaro Ranch has begun to erode.

This has created a fear among Cortaro Ranch residents of flooding from the Tortolita Mountains.

The drainage channel will protect both future residents and Cortaro Ranch from any flooding, Marana Planning Director Kevin Kish said.

As a condition of the council’s approval, the town requires the developer to remove non-native plants and trash in the wash and to add native plants.

“After years of abuse and neglect to this natural open space, enhancement” is crucial to providing habitat, preserving wildlife corridors and protecting the natural flow of the Hardy Wash, Kish said.

Red Point has done its best, but the property’s elongated shape limits what the developer can preserve, Kreis said.

It seems unfair, he added, for developers to bend over backwards for conservation requirements that have not yet been finalized.

The HCP will create a scenario where developers must adhere to certain open-space requirements and offer mitigation for building in sensitive areas. But the plan probably will not go into effect for at least another year.

“It’s really hard to implement something that’s not approved yet,” Kreis said. “But we’re really trying to do something unique with this property.”

Red Point plans to use a “coving” subdivision design to give the neighborhood more green areas than pavement and to avoid monotonous “gridded-out rectangles,” Kreis said.

While Red Point seems willing to satisfy environmental requests, any potential changes should have been addressed before the Marana council approved the plans, Campbell said.

“We have more success dealing with developers than the council itself,” she said.

Town staff addressed all environmental and traffic concerns, officials said.

The developer will add turn lanes on Hartman Lane at all entrances to the DeAnza project, officials said, and most of the open space for the project will be preserved along the most sensitive areas of the Hardy Wash.

“This project has been many years in the planning process to effectively address identified issues and concerns,” Kish said. The project shows how Marana can balance development and environment by taking into account all safety and health concerns, he added.

Still, citizens have been going door-to-door to gather signatures.

The referendum effort could go to the ballot, or the threat of it could precipitate change, Campbell said.

Depending on what Red Point is willing to change, citizens may drop the referendum.

Campbell and Nessinger, though, think it a bad sign when a threat seems like the only way to get Marana and some developers to listen to their concerns.