Saturday, June 5, 2010

Seeing red over Painted Hills - aka another edition of Using Water Policy to Manage Growth

There's a big, ongoing fight coming to a head this month in Tucson.  On one side you have the county administrator, environmentalists, and a powerful and well organized neighborhood association.  On the other side you have a property development company that represents the interests of the Dallas Police and Fire Pension Fund.  And in the middle, for the moment, is the Tucson City Council.

The fight is over the right to develop a parcel of land just west of downtown Tucson, but outside the city limits, known as Painted Hills.  This parcel is just under 300 acres of prime Sonoran desert landscape, just 10 minutes from downtown.  Most of the land surrounding the parcel is developed (to the extent allowed by the terrain), but there is also a large county park in the general vicinity.  The site is supposedly home to over 1000 10,000 mature saguaros - the acknowledged symbol of the Sonoran desert - as well as prime habitat for many birds, small mammals, and probably quite a few coyotes.  It's a pretty location and something of a rarity so close to a rapidly growing Sunbelt community.

more below

These factors also make the land very valuable for development purposes - which the pension fund recognized several years ago when they purchased the land.  One other potential purchaser of the land at that time was Pima County.  The county had recently allocated bond funds to open space purchases for preservation of wildlife habitat, wildlife corridors, and general recreation for the community.  The Painted Hills parcel had been specifically identified for preservation when the public approved the bonds for that purpose.  The value of the property (appraised) is going to be very different if the potential use is a county park vs. a large residential development.  Therefore, the pension fund vastly outbid the county for the land, then once they owned it began creating development plans to earn a return on their investment.

Once the county lost out on the chance to preserve the property they had to deal with the developer.  Because the existing zoning on the parcel probably permitted 3 homes per 10 acres - or something similarly low density - and the hilly nature of the parcel made development of some of the land impossible, the developer pursued a planned area/unit development (PA/UD) with a cluster development scheme.  This permits maximization of salable lots while minimizing the overall impact on the land.  It's really a win-win in some respects - the developer gets a better return on their investment and the public gets preserved open space.  However, it's a lose-lose if your perspective does not permit any development on the land whatsoever.

That's the view of the county (who failed in their promise to protect the land) and the local neighborhood association (who stand to benefit in many ways if the parcel remains undeveloped).  The county, nonetheless, went ahead and approved the development plans for the parcel and the enviros and neighbors threatened to sue. There was one hitch, though.  To develop the property with homes requires water and the availability of groundwater on this site (which would enable the developer to create a water utility to serve the property) was limited.  So they approached the city water utility (Tucson Water) about providing water service for the development.  This is a whole separate back-story that I have previously written about here and here.  But what has transpired since the city originally refused to provide water service is that the developer has petitioned the city for annexation (if they are in the city, the city must provide water service) and has filed a notice of intent to sue if they are not provided with water service.

I don't know enough about the basis for that suit to make any predictions on its merits, but I think it's safe to say that no matter the outcome it would cost the city plenty to defend itself.  And the county would likely be on the hook as well.  Here are what some other commentators have remarked on this issue from the largely anti-environmentalist view.

Now I'm all for open-space and using public funding to provide that open space.  But only if there is widely dispersed community benefit proved at a reasonable cost.  This case doesn't meet my litmus test.  The cost of preserving this land - either by outright purchase from the developer or by outlasting them in a lawsuit - is enormous.  The developers would need $27 million just to recoup their initial investment.  And the benefits of preserving this land - in my opinion - would flow largely to the current residents of the Tucson Mountain foothills (i.e. the Tucson Mountains Assn.).  This would increase their property values because of enhanced scenic amenities and reduction of developable land in that area.  The argument could be made that anyone who drives past the area or hikes in the area would derive benefits - and they would and this could include anyone living in or visiting the Tucson region - but I still believe the greatest benefit accrues to the immediate neighbors.

So I say that everyone who wants to see this land preserved should pay a proportionate share of the cost of preservation - then they would have free access to the recreational amenities of the land in perpetuity while all the rest of us would have to pay for access.  Or the alternative would be to do what the city is in the process of doing (and the opposing forces are trying real hard to prevent).  Work out a deal with the developer.  Provide water service as long as the property is annexed and the developer (hopefully) pays the full cost of extending water service to the property; and either donates the open space to the city or at least provides a permanent easement over the open space so the public can make use of it.  And while they're at it offer some pointed criticism to the county for largely creating this difficult situation for the city and then telling them to open up the residents of Tucson to a lawsuit in order to bail out the county by refusing water service to the development.  Is it the most elegant solution - hell no.  Is it the most reasonable and practical solution - hell yes.

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