LAST WEEK, THE Pima County Board of Supervisors voted to develop a radical conservation plan aimed at protecting endangered species and addressing the effects of rampant, uncontrolled growth.
As drafted by a coalition of more than two dozen environmental groups, the Sonoran Desert Protection Plan calls on the county to work with local municipalities, the state and the federal government to design an entirely new course of land planning in Pima County. At its heart, the Sonoran plan creates a preserve of high-quality Sonoran desert linked by wilderness corridors.
Can such a dramatic proposal succeed? To accomplish its goal, the plan would essentially scrap existing zoning law and replace it with a new set of strict development restrictions--which would require approval from the conservative Arizona Legislature, which has long been in the pocket of Arizona's powerful Growth Lobby.
One skeptic of the Sonoran plan is County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, who recommended the county instead work with state and federal wildlife officials to develop a multi-species habitat conservation plan.
"I would like to have a publicly adopted Regional Multi-Species Conservation Plan to submit as soon as possible--one that is real, attainable, and sustainable, not just an unaffordable pretty picture," Huckelberry told the Board in a May 19 memo.
But the Board rejected his proposal and instead instructed county staff to develop the environmentalists' Sonoran plan.
Any supervisor who saw Huckelberry following the meeting will tell you he was upset with the Board's vote. One remarked, "I've never seen him more unhappy."
Huckelberry himself plays down any hard feelings. "It's the Board's decision, and we're going to carry out the Board's direction. They make the policy, so that's fine. We're going to implement that policy. If they change direction in the future, that's fine, too."
But it's clear Huckelberry doesn't have much enthusiasm for the Sonoran Desert Protection Plan. He's moved development of the plan out of his office--which had been working closely with state and federal wildlife officials--to the county's Parks and Recreation Department, instructing Parks Director Dan Felix to figure out how to pay for the first stage of the plan. And he's told the coalition of environmental groups that developed the plan to outline the work ahead for the environmental consultant who will begin the surveys that will frame the Sonoran plan.
In other words, Chuck ain't gonna work on the Sonoran plan no more.
THE SONORAN DESERT Protection Plan has been developed over the last several months by a loose-knit coalition of Southern Arizona environmental groups.
Carolyn Campbell, who serves as coalition director, says the groups hammered out the proposal during weekly meetings. Campbell has plenty of experience in politics. She served as an aide to former Arizona Congressman Mo Udall, ran for the Arizona Legislature on the Green ticket and most recently completed four years working for former City Councilwoman Molly McKasson. She hopes the Sonoran plan will allow science rather than politics to drive the environmental agenda.
"The Sonoran Desert Protection Plan is not all that radical," adds Dave Hogan, a key organizer of the proposal. "What we're talking about is a planning document which will outline the desert preserve system, as well as areas where future development may be appropriate."
The Sonoran Desert Protection Plan calls for a biological survey of Pima County to identify vital lands which contain washes, endangered species and threatened plants. The most important land, linked by biological corridors, would be set aside as the Preserve, in which only single-family homes would be built.
The Preserve would be surrounded by Buffer Zones, which would include steep impact fees and other innovative financing mechanisms to discourage development. Outside the Buffer Zones would be Urban Sprawl Zones and Urban Infill Zones.
These zones would stretch across Pima County, including municipalities which now are exempt from county zoning regulations because they have their own zoning codes.
The 28-year-old Hogan, a staffer at the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity who has been working on environmental causes since he got out of high school in Southern California, maintains his plan isn't that different from Huckelberry's.
"Our plan is the best," Hogan says. "His was better than nothing. There were some bad components to it, but overall he had a good idea, which was comprehensive planning for wildlife. It was the wrong vehicle and he wasn't looking at enough funding sources."
When it comes to funding, the coalition has been considerably more imaginative than Huckelberry, although they haven't yet attached a price tag to their project. "We're so early in the game here it was even hard for us to say how much a consultant would cost," he says.
In addition to a variety of federal funding sources, backers of the Sonoran plan have come up with a wide range of funding mechanisms--designed, plan documents explain, with a simple philosophy: "All beneficiaries should be fairly assessed for the cost of building the Preserve." Among the proposed new taxes:
"Until February 24, we thought it was an impossible task to get the Pima County Board of Supervisors on board for something like this," says Campbell. "We have a lot of work to do between now and then, but we're hoping for the best. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
"I don't look upon the mechanisms for building the Preserve as revolutionary, radical, or even visionary," adds Hogan. "They are pragmatic and reasonable, and I can only hope that reason will prevail not only at the local level but at the state level."
Hogan even bristles at press characterizations of the Sonoran plan as "taxpayer-funded," even though the proposal calls for host of new levies from government.
"That's false," Hogan says. "One, we don't know what it is yet, but two, our outline specifically lays out a method for making the funding mechanism for this completely fair. Developers will shoulder their burden, people who benefit from it, i.e. residents, will shoulder their burden, visitors will shoulder a burden and the state and the feds will shoulder their burden."
But aren't all of those groups made up of taxpayers?
"Certainly the state and the feds are taxpayers, but developers--I don't know if an open-space impact fee would be a taxpayer-type thing," Hogan says. "That's not a local pocketbook expense. We're not talking property taxes, and I'm certainly not pushing a sales tax, although that's certainly an option."
Campbell says the coalition isn't necessarily attached to any of the funding mechanisms they've proposed.
"We're not really making recommendations on any of that funding stuff," Campbell says. "We were showing them there were a lot of different options they can pursue. What we've asked the county to do is look at all those different options and also to look at any others they might come up with. But that's going to be a bigger political decision in terms of what they're going to suggest to the Legislature for changes. We're focusing on the science part and we're asking them to look into these other things because we would hope there wasn't going to be roadblocks when it comes down to implementing them."
The plan's blurred features are frustrating to the pragmatic Huckelberry.
"It's kind of like we have to interpret what it is and what it means and how it gets put into the framework," Huckelberry says. "The framework we always have to work with is called the Constitution. It has to be legal, it has to be defensible, it has to fit within the definition of property rights, zoning law and all the history of things we've had to pay attention to over the years.
The Sonoran Desert Protection Plan, says Huckelberry, "has some things in there we don't know how to define right now, and I don't know if those things fit in this constitutional definition of traditional land-use planning law. I don't know what an Urban Sprawl Zone is. I don't know if it's a building overlay or what."
FOR MONTHS, HUCKELBERRY'S office had been working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department to lay the groundwork for his proposed multi-species habitat conservation plan.
"We've actually been working to develop some rational approach since the pygmy owl controversy began," Huckelberry says.
In hopes of preventing the controversial Endangered Species Act battles that have hit communities in the Pacific Northwest, the Clinton Administration has been pushing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to work out agreements with local communities on ways to protect endangered species. The process allows communities to develop conservation plans with federal officials that ensure critical habitat is preserved while allowing development to continue.
Huckelberry hoped to ride that trend by creating a multi-species habitat conservation plan with federal participation that would have tried to provide protection for more than a dozen threatened animal species, ranging from the jaguar to the pygmy owl, along with several plant species.
"If you're in the rapidly developing area of the West, there's probably a tendency to think about funding these kinds of projects as--and a lot of people hate to hear this--a 'demonstration program' to determine how an appropriate balance could be achieved between preservation of the environment and attainable and reasonable growth," Huckelberry says.
Essentially, county staffers hoped that, by marketing the plan as a "model for the nation," they would open a steady flow of federal dollars for land acquisition--absolutely key to the success of any conservation project.
"While the early plans, often called Habitat Conservation Plans, were funded primarily by the applicant, recent regional efforts have involved federal and state government in funding," Huckelberry wrote in his memo to the Board. "One study indicates that federal funding participation exceeds 50 percent.... The same study of regional plans indicates the annual cost of such programs begins at $20 to $30 million."
Huckelberry hoped to provide the county's share with bond dollars from the recently passed open-space measure. He also hoped to lobby the Legislature for the opportunity to ask Pima County voters, who have lately been generous toward environmental matters, if they would approve a quarter-cent sales tax for open-space acquisition.
Huckelberry's plan followed what he calls a "more traditionally established" route.
"If you look at what other communities have done," Huckelberry says, "that process is more amenable to achieving a more attainable goal, which was to develop a plan and at the same time develop probably the largest capability of bringing in outside revenue sources that are going to be needed for implementation."
But Hogan argues federal funding doesn't require the route Huckelberry has proposed.
"That's just a joke," Hogan says. "There's plenty of funding available, as well as other sections of the Endangered Species Act which specifically call for cooperation with states on endangered species issues."
Hogan objects to Huckelberry's plan because he fears the county will ultimately be given the authority to grant what's called an "incidental take permit," which would allow developers to escape penalty for harming an endangered species.
Hogan says Huckelberry's proposal played into the hands of developers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose "agenda is to only plan for wildlife conservation at the expense of the death of endangered species," says Hogan. "We know an ulterior motive is to provide developers with an out to the pygmy owl controversy.... One of the points, beyond just doing this comprehensively, is to get the numbers of these endangered species up, such as the pygmy owl, by acquiring essential habitat and specifically managing to bring the numbers up--be that breeding programs, whatever it takes. Then we can start talking about 'take.' "
THE SUPES, MEANWHILE, appear split in the wake of the vote. Raul Grijalva, who made the motion to go with the Sonoran Desert Protection Plan rather than Huckelberry's proposal, says he thinks the Sonoran plan will be better for the environment, although he admits Huckelberry's plan had better funding possibilities.
"It's easier money," Grijalva says. "(U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce) Babbitt loves those things, so he'd be handing out the cash to us."
But while he sees Huckelberry's plan as better from a financial standpoint, Grijalva adds, "The debate is, would it really be from an environmental standpoint? I thought the sure money versus a little caution in terms of how we deal with those species issues is more important to me. Let's try regulatory, let's try a real, scientific-fact-based study, let's do all that kind of stuff before we jump to sitting down and negotiating with the feds and the developers about which is buildable and which is not, and which species can go and which can't."
Grijalva says he wants to give the Sonoran plan a chance to work. He's concerned that if the county develops both at the same time, Huckelberry's proposal will get more attention than the Sonoran plan, which, he admits, "needs more assistance, needs more work, because of the uncertainty of how this is going to get funded.... The Sonoran plan, in terms of revenue, is a lot of ifs. If this grant happens, if that grant happens. I recognize that's the weak part of the Sonoran plan. The environmental and scientific part is the strong part. The revenue's the weak part. In Chuck's plan, the environmental stuff is the weak part and the revenue is the strong part. I'd like to give the Sonoran plan a real opportunity before we start resurrecting the other one. The other one's easy to do, you just start putting in for those permits. It's not like it's a complicated process."
Supervisor Ray Carroll, who was appointed to the District 4 seat and is facing an election this fall, enthusiastically supports the Sonoran plan.
"It sounds great that Chuck has identified his funding sources, but I like that the Sonoran Desert Protection Plan has a coalition that's fronting it that can serve as a buffer for Pima County to go the Congressional delegation, and to other municipalities or jurisdictions," Carroll says. "It's a citizen conservation corps that was endorsed by the county Board, yet doesn't have the baggage that the county Board has when approaching other municipalities that we haven't had an excellent track record with as far as getting cooperation. And it also gives them the opportunity to expand and take on more volunteers and diverse groups interested in environmental protection and a plan for environmental growth. I feel that coalition has a great chance of going to Kolbe or McCain--we'll give letters of endorsement--but I think they have the passion and the goals that are clearer to them that aren't watered down by the bureaucracy."
He believes the environmental coalition will be more effective at the statehouse than any lobbyist on the county's payroll.
"Paid lobbyists are always less effective than passionate lobbyists who are doing it for their own goals and objectives," he explains.
But coalition members say they're counting on Pima County to write the new legislation and lead the lobbying effort.
"Obviously, Pima County, now that they've endorsed it, has more clout than the coalition," says Campbell.
Hogan agrees: "Obviously, the county has significantly more power to effect the legislative process than grassroots environmental organizations. That's just the way the power structure is. Not only affecting the legislative process, but also approaching other jurisdictions for participation."
Sharon Bronson, elected to office in 1996 on a restrained-growth platform, has misgivings about the Sonoran plan. She tried to add an amendment to Grijalva's motion that would have directed the county to develop both the coalition's and Huckelberry's plans concurrently, but the motion failed.
"I didn't want to block any of our options, and clearly the plan the county administrator presented was fleshed out and looked like something we could accomplish in the short run," Bronson says. "I didn't want to lock any avenues out. This is too important an issue to let dogma drive a decision."
She ultimately voted to support the Sonoran plan, however, because, "I think we need to have some overall plan in place and clearly it was the will of the majority of the Board to do it this way. I didn't want to be an obstacle. I just hope we can indeed move forward with this plan, although I don't think there's buy-in from the community on it at this point."
Bronson shares Huckelberry's concerns about the legal aspects of the Sonoran plan.
"There are problems with the plan they submitted," Bronson says. "Their Urban Sprawl Zone--constitutionally, I don't think we can do it. I would hope the coalition is talking to their attorneys about the feasibility of some of their laudable goals."
Bronson also says her contacts in the federal government tell her the county may have flushed hundreds of millions of federal dollars by rejecting Huckelberry's plans.
Huckelberry says there were never any guarantees of federal funding with his plan. But he believes it had better odds of succeeding than the environmentalists' alternative.
"You can talk optimistically about the $20 to $30 million (annually), but you can't really pin anything down until you have an appropriation," Huckelberry says. "All you can do is talk about your probability of success in the appropriation process, and that's always enhanced if you stay within the guidelines established by the federal government for participating in that process."
When it comes to federal appropriations, Pima County has a powerful friend in Congress: Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Dist. 5, is on the House Appropriations Committee and is assigned to the Subcommittee on Interior, which oversees federal wildlife funding.
Kolbe spokesman Ron Foreman, who hasn't seen either plan, says he likes what he's read in the papers about the Sonoran plan.
"What's encouraging about the thinking of the coalition is that they're looking at habitat in its totality and looking beyond a single species," Foreman says. "The pygmy owl has become symbolic of something much greater, and I think that's a positive sign."
But Foreman cautions that federal money might not be as plentiful as everyone seems to think. For starters, the Sonoran plan probably wouldn't be eligible for Wildlife Refuge funds, which the coalition has suggested.
"I don't think that's a good analogy for what we're trying to do in an urban area," Foreman says. "That would not be applicable."
Foreman isn't sure if any federal funds would be available to support the Sonoran plan.
"We haven't gotten to that point," Foreman says. "I think the idea of using locally generated funds probably makes more good sense and is more do-able. Federal dollars come with strings attached and there's a lot of bureaucracy."
THE DAY AFTER the vote, Hogan said the No. 1 priority for the environmental coalition was to ensure Huckelberry didn't somehow sabotage the Sonoran plan.
"We have about a million small steps ahead of us, and those steps involve ensuring the County Administrator works with us to carry out the Sonoran Desert Protection Plan instead of co-opting our plan and making it what he wanted to do anyway," Hogan said. "I think that's a huge likelihood. I don't think he'll be successful, because we'll be watching him every step of the way."
It turned out, however, that Hogan needn't have been worried about Huckelberry subverting his plan--because the next day, Huckelberry punted the plan out of his office, transferring responsibility to the county's Parks and Recreation Department.
"It's most closely related to open-space regional planning," Huckelberry says. "That's what it would appear to be. They've actually been working on things of that nature."
Coalition members, who hoped to meet with Huckelberry this week, hope the Parks Department won't be the only county office working on the Sonoran plan.
"We hadn't anticipated the Parks Department working on the Sonoran plan as heavily as the planning department," Hogan says. "Really, the expertise for what we're talking about is in the Planning Department, so it's our hope it will eventually be a cooperative effort between those two offices."
In the meantime, Huckelberry says his office will begin to work on affordable housing and infill issues.
"We think we'll do as much work and research into that as we've done in the multi-species habitat conservation planning process," Huckelberry says.
Although he says "it wasn't something I would have recommended," Huckelberry refrains from criticizing the Board for the vote to go with the Sonoran plan. Even so, there's a hint of disappointment when he talks about the road not taken.
"We were after more than a pretty picture--something that could realistically accomplish the goal and is attainable," he says. "You can have all the great plans in the world--and we've done a lot of these--but if you can't implement them, then the process is a waste of time."
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