B y J . E . R e l l y
A COMPANY CONTROLLED by legendary land speculator Don Diamond is proposing an amendment to weaken the county's untested Riparian Protection Ordinance. Not surprisingly, the proposed amendment would also save Diamond's company big bucks on its controversial Pima Canyon development.
Diamond Management's 471-acre real estate plan for Pima Canyon, which includes more than 250 luxury homes on one-acre lots, will encroach on parts of Pima Wash and its tributaries. Diamond's proposed amendment would make allowances for developers who can prove they're physically or economically unable to satisfy the riparian ordinance's standards, and it would permit developers to offset the impact of construction in riparian areas by allowing them to protect five acres of upland habitat, including stands of saguaros and ironwood trees, for each acre of riparian habitat they disrupt.
Critics of the proposed amendment are outraged that officials of Diamond Management didn't take their proposal before the county's Riparian Habitat Protection Committee as the ordinance and standards were being developed. After all, a Diamond representative attended several advisory committee meetings, they point out.
When Pima County Supervisor Mike Boyd brought the Diamond amendment up for vote at the supervisors' June 6 meeting, several complained they hadn't been given adequate time to study the proposal. The county attorney also indicated the proposal had improper notification.
With representatives of Diamond Management present, the supervisors voted 5-0 in favor of sending the proposal to the Riparian Committee for discussion on Friday, June 30. The supervisors will await the committee's recommendations.
Supervisor Raul Grijalva, critical of attempts to slip the proposed amendment through at the last minute, says if Diamond Management officials were really concerned about protecting the riparian habitat at the mouth of Pima Canyon, they would decrease housing density.
Members of the Sierra Club Rincon Group say the amendment does not foster habitat protection as intended in the ordinance. "We support protection of upland habitat, but it should not be obtained at the expense of riparian habitat," wrote members Nancy Kelly and Peggy Wenrick in a letter to the supervisors.
The Arizona Game & Fish Department also advises against the proposed amendment. Although high-quality saguaro and ironwood upland stands are important components of the desert ecosystem, they don't provide the same plant diversity, variety of food sources, or nesting and escape cover as riparian habitats, says
planning department habitat specialist Sherry Ruther.
"If you're looking at an outright trade of upland for riparian (habitat), the functions and values between the two don't equate--no matter how much upland you offer," says Ruther.
Increasingly rare in our area because of development, riparian ecosystems are among the most significant natural resources in the county, providing water-quality protection, soil stabilization, flood prevention and wildlife habitat, according to Carla Danforth, principal hydrologist with the County Flood Control District.
Prior to the ordinance, neither the state nor the county had riparian habitat protection regulations on their books, says Karen Novak, senior landscape architect with the County Flood Control District. As defined in the ordinance, riparian habitats are plant communities occurring in association with a spring, cienega, lake, watercourse, river, stream or other bodies of water, either surface or subsurface, through which water flows at least periodically.
The ordinance requires developers to preserve these riparian resources. Filled with economic incentives, it's meant to increase habitat protection without hamstringing the developer. Diamond's Pima Canyon development was to be the first test to the ordinance, says Novak, who coordinated the advisory committee. The company has already agreed to replant, irrigate and maintain 5.6 acres of riparian habitat, which will be affected by roads and utilities, says Novak.
But according to Novak and other sources, Diamond Management officials contend they have no idea what will happen to associated riparian areas sold off to lot owners, who will make custom plans with their personal architects.
At one point, says Novak, Diamond Management proposed that the ordinance standards be passed on to each individual lot owner, which county officials feel would be an unrealistic and costly administrative nightmare. Each lot owner would be required to submit his individual plan to fulfill the ordinance standards.
While critics decry such maneuvers as illegal under the current ordinance, Novak says there's no "language explicit or implicit in the ordinance or guidelines" to rule out passing the buck to future lot owners.
Boyd says he was sent a notification along with the other supervisors "forwarded by different, various people" to address the amendment proposal. He says he doesn't know where it came from. "I've heard the same scuttlebutt you have, that Diamond Management is behind this proposal. To the best of my knowledge (they) have to comply with all of the requirements in the ordinance if they insist on building in riparian habitat area," Boyd says.
But when voting on the Pima Canyon Specific Plan for Diamond Management at a January 10 board meeting, supervisors Boyd, Ed Moore and Paul Marsh voted 3-2 in favor of lot owners being required to comply with the intent of the Riparian Protection Ordinance, thus absolving Diamond Management of responsibility.
Novak was told by her department staff, who were instructed by unnamed upper management, that Diamond Management was not responsible for following the riparian ordinance standards on the lots in Pima Canyon. She was asked to work with Ken Abrahams and Mark Weinberg, of Diamond Management, to craft environmentally sound language into the amendment proposal. Weinberg and Abrahams did not return calls from The Weekly.
"My concern with Diamond's group was that they would go to the board and get something like this adopted without my working on it," says Novak. "(Their original plan) could have had the potential of completely neutering the whole ordinance."
Novak says Diamond's initial proposal included two acres of high-quality upland for one acre of riparian property. She took the actual 3.5:1 ratio of upland to riparian habitat mapped in Pima Canyon and doubled it, countering with a tough, seven acres of high-resource upland area for every one acre of riparian habitat destroyed. The current amendment proposal is the compromise. As with land in the riparian habitat, the upland area would not be deeded to the county, but preserved in perpetuity.
The proposed amendment currently is written so that an upland trade is used as a last resort, says Novak, who wrote a series of steps into the amendment to prevent developers from beating a path to the cheapest, most convenient option.
But Doug Koppinger, of the Tucson Audubon Society, poses two key questions to a potential upland-for-riparian habitat swap in Pima Canyon: "How fragmented will (the riparian) habitat be before it's all over?" and "Where is this upland area?"
The Flood Control District does not yet have answers to these questions.
"(Diamond Management) is trying to turn this into an economic discussion and I'm trying to keep it on an environmental level," says Grijalva. "If it becomes purely a discussion about banking transfers, economic feasibility, what-is-it-worth-to-me, what-it-is-worth-to-you kind of discussion, then I think you lose focus of the intent to protect the habitat. The strongest argument the board and the county has in terms of Pima Canyon is environmental protection."
Says the Sierra Club's Kelly, "There seems to be a tremendous effort on the part of the county to (accommodate). How about making this a wonderful example of how to comply with this ordinance?"
The Riparian Habitat Protection Committee meets to discuss the proposed Riparian Habitat Ordinance amendment at 9 a.m. on June 30 in Conference Room B in the basement of the Public Works Building, 201 N. Stone Avenue.
Photo by Jeff Scott
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