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That Sinking Feeling

To the Editor,

As a member of the Citizens' Advisory Committee (CAC) on the Arroyo Chico Multi-Use Project and a 20-year resident of the Miles Neighborhood, I would like to respond to Chris Limberis' "Flow Woe" (March 23). Limberis' statements are misleading, tendentious, poorly researched, and gratuitous in their ad hominem attacks upon TUSD Superintendent George Garcia and Guy Ferro, real-estate manager of the district's Planning Services. Limberis fails to address any of the legitimate, substantive objections that TUSD or the Miles Neighborhood have over converting the 18-acre Cherry Field athletic complex (at Kino/13th) into a stormwater detention basin (Basin 4 in the Arroyo Chico project).

Two years ago when I joined the CAC, I was appalled at the general lack of information circulating about the city and county's plans to excavate 15 of the 18 acres of Cherry Field to a depth of at least 15 feet in a construction project slated to last up to a year. Berms and embankments varying in height from two to five feet were to surround the basin's perimeter and "equivalent" athletic fields (a one-to-one replacement) were to be installed at the bottom of the basin, according to the Army Corps of Engineers' feasibility report. Significant neighborhood concerns arose, as evidenced by a petition signed by residents outlining the potential drawbacks of the project. These issues included concern that the size of the berms around the basin's rim and the general sunken aspect of the fields could make the complex less attractive and lead to the depressing of property values in the area. Liability and safety questions also emerged. Since it is atypical and bizarre to have an athletic field that serves secondarily as a drainage facility, residents wondered whether the fields could become a deathtrap during flood events. (Only at my urging was an emergency warning system added to the approved design of this basin.) Nevertheless, hidden costs of the project could include the need for the district to pay substantial liability insurance premiums every year for perpetuity.

Residents also wanted guarantees that sediment and refuse cleanup after flooding would be provided by the city or Pima County Flood Control as part of ongoing maintenance -- of course, the possibility exists that if the installed subsurface drains do not function properly, standing water could make the fields unusable for periods after floods and present a general health hazard (mosquito breeding, drowning danger, etc.). Nonetheless, the residents expressed interest in a joint use/maintenance agreement between TUSD and the city/county to allow the neighborhood access to the complex as a public park after-hours and on days when TUSD teams were not playing/practicing there (though some worried that, without proper policing, the fields could attract gang activity). Another concern was for minimizing the prolonged construction nuisances (dust, flying debris, excessive noise, etc.) that could plague the neighborhood.

Admittedly, TUSD has been tight-lipped about its overriding concerns about Cherry Field, but district personnel, including George Garcia and Guy Ferro, have been professional and generally cooperative and sensitive to neighborhood issues. The incident cited by Limberis in which Councilman Steve Leal supposedly "asked to address the TUSD board in open session about Arroyo Chico," but was "dissed" by Garcia "with a condescending note" never occurred, according to Leal, who told me "Limberis apparently was confusing another incident on a different issue." And Limberis' characterization of Ferro as "a former real-estate speculator" who now is at the core of TUSD land speculation with Cherry Field is unwarranted and vicious. Ferro is merely looking out for TUSD's best interests. His is an important role, since the city, county, and the Army Corps of Engineers consistently have ignored TUSD while planning this project (which Limberis claims is the district's "whining about being left out of the loop"). The extent of TUSD's early exclusion from the project is detailed in an October '97 letter from Bob O'Toole (former Executive Manager of Fiscal and Operational Support) to the Army Corps. Even at that juncture, conflict with TUSD could have been avoided. During the first three months of '98, as the Citizens' Advisory Committee continued to meet and move toward a recommended design for the Arroyo Chico basins, no significant communication took place between city and county officials and TUSD's staff. My conversations with board members at the time convinced me of the need to keep them apprised of new developments. Just before the April '98 City Council vote on the detention basins, I warned the City Council of TUSD's possible alienation and resentment at being cut out of the process. My warnings have proven to be prophetic.

Limberis refers to TUSD's seizing upon the Army Corps' tentative appraisal of Cherry Field at $10 million, but he fails to relate the report's claim that if the land is not purchased outright, flood easement rights govern the use of TUSD's land as a stormwater basin. The county suggested that TUSD be compensated $43,000 for this easement, according to Guy Ferro. But the Army Corps' report states that flood easement rights can be asserted only if the fields do not flood with more frequency after the project is built. Yet the Army Corps concedes that the fields in the basin might flood every 25 years. Based on a 1997 revised FEMA map sent to former Mayor George Miller, two-thirds of Cherry Field is not even presently in the 500-year flood plain, so flood easement rights cannot apply and the athletic fields themselves can hardly be threatened by a 100-year flood, as Limberis suggests. Therefore, if the city and county insist upon this project and TUSD refuses to go along with it, TUSD must be compensated for its land and for replacement athletic facilities. Of course, whether fair market value is $10 million, or $1.65 as the county's appraisal maintains, remains to be seen.

With the project, TUSD knows that two to four acres of its land (at least 10-15 percent of the total acreage) will be lost to embankments around the parcel's perimeter and that the property will be locked into its use as a detention basin forever. If TUSD needs to sell the property in the future for any reason, or to build a school or other facilities there, its options would be severely limited. Purported "upgrades" to the complex will largely involve duplicating present ones (e.g. the one-to-one replacement of the fields) or the installation of unnecessary amenities (such as a more elaborate snack bar). Most importantly, the centrally located 8,000-square-foot locker facility, built for more than $500,000 in the mid-'80s, will be demolished and replaced in the northeast corner of the complex -- hardly a necessary improvement. If TUSD is circumspect, it is only because it wants to safeguard its interests and those of its student-athletes, while keeping in mind the potential negative impact of this project upon the Miles and Barrio San Antonio Neighborhoods.

-- Michael Teske

Chris Limberis replies: Mr. Teske is so enamored of TUSD that he fails to realize the district is only playing this for money. Had the county, the city and the feds dangled enough jack in front of the bureaucrat-driven TUSD, Mr. Teske and his neighbors would have been sold down the arroyo long ago.

Councilman Steve Leal was in fact dissed on this issue and another potential joint-use facility. Mr. Teske was not around for that conversation or during my talks with Leal.

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