Map Quest

The council candidates debate the vision thing

Surprisingly enough, there's one thing that both Republican Fred Ronstadt and Democrat Nina Trasoff agree on: Historically, the city has done a lousy job of dealing with growth.

Trasoff, who wants to unseat Ronstadt in next month's City Council election, says she sees "just a complete lack of planning."

Ronstadt says the city has struggled to deal with new development--but that's because in the past, that development has generally happened in the county, with the city annexing the homes after they've been built.

"I would agree with her that in the past there's been no planning," he says. But he's quick to add that "the progressive leadership on the council really stepped up" to launch the most ambitious planning effort in the city's history: the Houghton Area Master Plan.

The HAMP is the first step toward directing Tucson's growth on the southeast side, where planners estimate a quarter of a million people will be living by 2030.

Covering 16.9 square miles of mostly state trust land that's earmarked for development in the Houghton Road corridor between Irvington Road and Interstate 10, the HAMP outlines a New Urbanism style of "Desert Village" development that brings together housing, shops, offices, parks, streets and trails so that people can live, work, shop and play without needing to drive across town.

The plan, it turns out, is popular among all the candidates. Trasoff agrees it's a blueprint for future growth, as do the candidates vying to represent Ward 3: incumbent Republican Kathleen Dunbar and Democratic challenger Karin Uhlich.

While they might agree that the HAMP represents solid planning for the future, the Democrats charge that Republicans have been too soft on making growth pay for itself. The evidence: impact fees.

Tucson was one of the last jurisdictions in Pima County to adopt the fees, passing a plan last September after years of study. Residential fees are $2 per square foot; figuring that the average house is about 1,800 square feet, the average fee is about $3,600. It tops out at $5,000 per home. The fees are indexed to inflation and will rise in future years.

The city also has a park impact fee of 80 cents per residential square foot. To encourage infill, the city only charges 77 percent of the fees for inner-city developers, who are also eligible for credits depending on the project.

The city began charging residential fees with a half-price discount in July. The full fee goes into effect in January 2006, according to Albert Elias, the city's director of planning.

Commercial impact fees are much higher, at $3.97 per square foot, although Elias estimates that they'll only account for roughly 20 percent of the impact-fee revenue. The city will start charging half of the fees in January 2008 and implement the full fee in 2011.

The city could charge impact fees for new police and fire stations as well as libraries, but Elias says the council hasn't directed him to examine those areas.

Both Uhlich and Trasoff charge that the Republicans were too slow to implement impact fees. They're particularly critical of a council vote in December 2004 to delay the full collection of commercial impact fees until 2011; both promise to shorten that timeline if elected.

Uhlich says it's "unconscionable" that commercial impact fees were delayed while the council enacted a trash-collection fee. "Wal-Mart, a billion-dollar company, is not going to contribute impact fees?" she asks.

But the Republicans have an unusual defender in that case: The third member of the Democratic slate, Councilman Steve Leal, who opposed impact fees for most of his career before reversing course a few years ago. He made the December motion to delay the commercial fees, which passed on a 6-1 vote. (Democrat Shirley Scott also supported the delay, while José Ibarra cast the sole vote against it.)

The motion to delay the commercial impact fees was actually a return to the original plan proposed by city staff. When the council formally approved the impact-fee plan in September 2004, Leal pushed for more rapid phase-in of commercial fees. But the Ward 5 Democrat, who is seeking his fifth term on the City Council, soon changed his mind, saying the development community and city staff persuaded him that commercial development happens on a longer timeline than residential. "They had a valid argument," Leal says.

Dunbar has consistently criticized impact fees through her first term and cast the sole vote against implementing them last September--although she says it was a protest vote against Leal's last-minute changes in the package. Asked whether she now supports impact fees, she says: "It's the way we're going. It's what the media have driven."

Both Dunbar and Ronstadt oppose accelerating the collection of commercial impact fees. They're also on the same page when it comes to pointing out that Democrats had ample opportunity to enact impact fees since 1982, when the city first got the authority to charge them.

Ronstadt says that he supported creating impact fees as far back as 1998, while Leal and George Miller, the former mayor who is now co-chairing Uhlich's campaign, voted against the idea.

Dunbar likewise complains that she's being attacked for opposing impact fees even though the Democrats opposed them for years. "How come George Miller, Tom Volgy and the Democratic council never voted for impact fees?" she asks.

Miller did not return a phone call from the Weekly.

Trasoff says she's not responsible for what Democrats did before she came along.

"I'm not going to say everything has been done perfectly in the past," Trasoff says. "I'm not going to say everything the Democrats did was wonderful and everything the Republicans did was awful. I'm looking at the last four or five years."

The Democrats suggest that if the city had raised impact fees sooner, then the council wouldn't have had to raise tuition fees for the city's after-school program or enact a trash-collection fee. The Republicans counter that impact fees can't be used for social programs and that no general fund dollars are now spent on road projects, so even if impact fees had been in place, they would have had no effect on those decisions. (For details, see "Numbers Racket," Oct. 10).

If there's one issue that nearly all Tucsonans like to complain about, it's transportation. Tucson's roads are getting steadily overcrowded, residential streets have been neglected, and some buses on major commuter corridors are now so full that they can't pick up passengers.

But with the advent of the Regional Transportation Authority last year, the candidates have been able to shift responsibility for how to deal with Tucson's transportation woes to the new body.

All of the candidates agree that creating the RTA was the right way to deal with Tucson's transportation woes. And none of them suggest major changes in the RTA draft plan, which is scheduled to be finalized in December. But they split somewhat on three of the more controversial projects within Tucson's city limits:

· The widening of Grant Road from Oracle to Swan roads, at an estimated cost of $175 million. Transportation planners says the widening would eliminate many of the homes and businesses that now line the street.

Trasoff says the RTA should take a less extreme approach of improving intersections rather than widening the entire corridor. Ronstadt says he believes that the RTA is now taking that step.

Uhlich says she doesn't support widening Grant Road to six lanes, while Dunbar says it would be inappropriate for elected officials to weigh in on any projects while the RTA is still assembling its plan.

· Extending the Barraza-Aviation Parkway from its eastern end at Alvernon Way along the edge of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base to Interstate 10 near Valencia Road, at a cost of $178 million; and a scaled-down completion of the parkway through downtown in the form of a four-lane road that will carry traffic on the north side of the railroad tracks to Sixth Avenue, at a cost of $93 million.

Ronstadt supports both ideas. Trasoff supports the downtown leg, but thinks the RTA should consider widening Alvernon Way rather than extending Barraza-Aviation to I-10. Uhlich agrees that the downtown leg should be completed, but says the eastern end needs more study.

· An urban streetcar that would carry passengers between University Medical Center and Rio Nuevo, at an estimated cost of more than $150 million. (As much as $75 million could come from federal matching funds.)

Trasoff and Ronstadt both like the idea, with Ronstadt boasting that he helped secure the federal matching funds for the project. Uhlich says she doesn't know whether the streetcar is a good idea, but she supports the plan's overall focus on mass transit.

Finally, there's that pesky question about whether Tucson will have enough water for future residents.

Tucson Water Director David Modeer noted last year that the "era of cheap water is over" for Tucson. He foresees increased demand combined with a dwindling supply, since state law--unless it's changed--will eventually prevent Tucson from mining groundwater.

To cover the gap, Modeer has recommended the city start studying the possibility of treating effluent to a high standard and then recharging it before pumping it back into taps.

Ronstadt says the plan needs more public input, while Trasoff says she would "absolutely not" support it.

Dunbar says the issue needs more study, but notes that Scottsdale is now serving treated effluent, as are other communities around the country.

Uhlich opposes the idea.

"I'd have to be persuaded that it's our only option and that all other measures for conservation and sustainable water services had been exhausted," she says.