Revolting Development

The Legislature is set to award control of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan to the Growth Lobby.

Our state Senate is poised to act on a law that would give Republican Gov. Jane Hull a veto of Pima County's developer-opposed Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

Stealth efforts to get Hull's new power on the books began last week, shortly after Tucson developer Don Diamond opened fire on the plan to protect endangered species and direct suburban growth. It has been in the works for more than two years.

The issue was raised on the Senate floor as an amendment of Sen. Herb Guenther, D-Tacna, to an innocuous state Land Department bill. It passed a voice vote, but never went to the full Senate for a formal tally after a furor ensued.

Naturally, Hull's office and other supporters vigorously deny that the development industry is behind this attack on the Pima County plan. "We've had not a single conversation with a developer on this issue," said Hull spokeswoman Francie Noyes.

"That's an effective tool people use down in Tucson," she said. "They use the word 'developer' and it's a hot button. We didn't talk to any developers or their lobbyists."

Noyes said Hull's office wrote the amendment that popped up suddenly as this session nears its thankful end. But she was unclear about the office's sudden interest in the issue.

"Well, a number of people raised the issue ... (Rep. Steve) Huffman (R-Tucson), and people in the halls who talked to Maria Baier (Hull's aid for natural resources)," she said.

Environmentalists are not buying Noyes' disclaimers. "I'm sure it's not just a coincidence this appeared right after Don Diamond started squawking about the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan," said Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr.

"The governor's office always has been close to the development industry," she said. "Steve Betts (a Phoenix real estate attorney) has written development-related bills for her office and he's a registered lobbyist for Del Webb, Diamond Ventures and SunCor."

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry agrees developers are behind the effort. He was at the annual meeting recently of the Arizona Real Estate Research Council where Diamond issued a call to arms against the county conservation plan.

"He called our conservation plan 'a dipshit plan' and said it was out of control," Huckelberry said. "I said Don doesn't like anything he doesn't absolutely control, so our conservation plan must be out of control."

Even closer to the amendment's sudden emergence--few senators had seen it before it landed on their Senate-floor desks April 2--was a meeting of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, a group of wealthy Tucson businessmen that includes Diamond and fellow developer Stan Abrams.

Huckelberry said a speaker from Austin, Texas, appeared at the leadership council meeting and said that when Texas cities and counties tried to adopt interim conservation measures while habitat conservation plans were in the works, as Huckelberry proposes with the county plan, the Texas Legislature "kiboshed" the efforts.

"When somebody asked if there was a copy of that bill, Stan Abrams said he had one," according to Huckelberry. "It's remarkable how similar it is to Guenther's amendment."

Huffman, a real estate agent who said he talked with Baier about the issue but did not ask for any specific bill, said he was concerned because the county plan now excludes state school trust land.

"There are 850,000 acres of state school trust land in Pima County," Huffman said. "The state is the number one landholder in the county--it's not wise to exclude the state. That was clearly a political decision and not based on science or biology."

Huffman said Hull's office and state Land Department Commissioner Mike Anable have wanted to be involved in the planning effort but were excluded.

Noyes agreed. "Huckelberry has neglected to inform us of anything he's doing--that's our reason for this effort," she said. "We understand there's a great deal of state land involved (in the county plan)."

Huckelberry disputes Noyes and Huffman. "We went up to Phoenix several times and invited Anable and the governor's office to participate in the plan," he said. "Participation means to make an effort--to attend meetings, to do research, to keep abreast of the work."

The state officials did not appear, but Huckelberry's office sent Hull and Anable "a number of letters" about the course of the planning work, he said. "In return, we got dead silence." Huckelberry said he has copies of the letters.

The state school trust land, which is less in volume than Tohono O'odham Indian Nation land and federal land, was withdrawn from the plan only at the request of Anable in a January 2001 letter he sent to Huckelberry, the county administrator said.

"We asked him to continue livestock grazing leases on the state land and said if it wasn't in a conservation reserve, perhaps inside the Tucson city limits, it constitutes a development reserve and ought to be urbanized," Huckelberry said.

Bahr said Hull's administration consistently opposes conservation efforts on behalf of developers. "The governor said (endangered pygmy) owls ought to just stay down in Mexico," Bahr said. "These people aren't giving deep thought to conservation."

Guenther has shifted his tactics, abandoning his original amendment in favor of putting new language in House Bill 2524, which was to be heard and voted on in his Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee Thursday, April 12, just as this issue of the Weekly was hitting the streets.

There is little chance that committee will defeat it because its only pro-environment member is Sen. Elaine Richardson, D-Tucson, Bahr said.

"We'll get trounced in Guenther's committee," Huckelberry said. "The good news is the vote will be close on the Senate floor."

If the bill becomes law, he said, "this pro-development legislation will cause a great deal of consternation among a voting public that's changing. It's tired of traffic congestion, air pollution, the loss of scenic mountain vistas, and the blading of our Sonoran desert."