Guest Commentary

Why not let neighborhoods--not the city government--decide their own fate?

Back in March, our City Council put off a vote on the proposed Neighborhood Protection Zone (NPZ) ordinance. The ordinance would add another "layer" of zoning on top of existing zoning laws. The new NPZ would differ from existing zoning regulations in that each neighborhood assigns its own standards within certain guidelines, and submits the plan through the regular zoning process.

Many residents, of the "owner-occupied" variety, are witnessing a profound change in the neighborhoods where they live. People are moving into these neighborhoods who have different lifestyles and customs, and just plain "don't look like" the average, middle-income Tucson family. These interlopers are primarily college students, or, if you prefer the clinical description, "transient residents."

Many neighborhoods, which were far from the university for decades, now find themselves alarmingly close. A look at the Jefferson Park and Feldman neighborhoods, for example, reveals property owners adding a couple of bedrooms onto a single-family dwelling, or scraping the lot to install two-story monstrosities with insufficient parking. Sometimes, these projects are within zoning and land-use regulations (barely), and sometimes, they receive "variances" from the city. This is the "mini-dorm" phenomenon.

At the risk of sounding less than maniacally enthusiastic about "diversity" in housing, I must say that I have sympathy for the homeowners. They typically spend their lives working to provide a family-friendly environment for their children and themselves. It's no wonder that they experience a certain amount of tedium when they are awakened by the police helicopter at 2 a.m., have to pick beer bottles and other trash from their yards, and are compelled to explain a "BUCK FUSH" bumper sticker to their 8-year-old child while they walk to the school bus stop.

While most university-area residents clamored for immediate passage, some are not so sure that a NPZ is the answer. As one resident pointed out, it would be difficult to differentiate between a homeowner improving his dwelling and the building of a mini-dorm. The Southern Arizona Home Builders Association and the Chamber of Commerce wanted the details hammered out among the "stakeholders" before a new law was chiseled in stone.

On April 24, the City Council voted to try a 90-day "pilot program" in the university area to work out the bugs before passing the ordinance. This is such a smart approach to developing a complex program that it could have been suggested by a Republican. Of course, had Republicans voted to pass such a plan, there would have been much growling and gnashing of teeth, but since it was the Democrats (Karin Uhlich made the motion), it's all right--much like the trash-collection fees. But I digress.

Ironically, the City Council already has the authority to add zoning overlays. They could do it anytime. The problem, from the council's perspective, is that any such action would invariably anger a bunch of people, and angry bunches of people do not make for happy re-elections. Better to foist it off on the neighborhood busybodies--let them catch the flak.

Speaking of existing powers ... how about looking at the traditional rights of private property as a solution? Members of a neighborhood could contract with each other to develop their properties within strict guidelines. How about a 100-year usage easement? I'm not a lawyer, but I'll bet one could figure out a contract that would serve as a model for more than a few neighborhoods. The city could sell, or even give, its property within the neighborhood borders to the neighborhood, and then the neighborhood would own the entire enchilada! The city could no longer screw the neighborhood with "variances." It could even install gates.

No, this is not sarcasm, and yes, I understand that it is fashionable to hold a condescending attitude toward gated communities, but at some point, a choice will have to be made. Look, if you want to form an enclave against the tide, then you have to form an enclave against the tide. I just think it's morally superior to get there through private contracting rather than government coercion.