Long-Term Investment

The Northwest Fire District donates an unused lot to Habitat for Humanity

Habitat for Humanity is not picky. Being a nonprofit, it can't afford to be.

The builder of homes for low-income residents has preferences for where it would like to put housing—but it will take what it can get.

That made one of Habitat's most-recent land acquisitions—a little more than 1 1/4 acres near Interstate 10 and Ruthrauff Road—significant, because it just happened to be in an area where the organization had been desperately searching for a place to build.

"This one seemed promising," said Michael McDonald, Habitat Tucson's executive director. "It's in the Flowing Wells area, which is an area that we'd like to work more in. We just haven't had enough opportunities."

Even more surprising for Habitat Tucson was the land donor: the Northwest Fire District, the growing quasi-governmental entity that seems to always be building a new fire station. In this instance, the district found itself with property it had no use for.

"It's just sat vacant for a while," outgoing Fire District Chief Jeff Piechura said.

Formerly the old Flowing Wells Fire District Station No. 2, the structure was closed as a station in 1996 when FWFD built a new station about a mile to the southwest. Not long after, Flowing Wells merged with Northwest, which used the old station as a maintenance facility until opening a more-modern building in 2004 near Ina Road and Interstate 10.

Northwest's wildlands-firefighting arm used the property for training and staging for two years, but since 2006, the property has been dormant.

"We put feelers out in 2009 to see if there was any interest in buying the property, but there were no nibbles," said Piechura, who on Friday, Oct. 6, is set to step down as Northwest chief after 24 years to run the fire department in Stockton, Calif.

But two years ago, Tim Graves, a Northwest captain, was out with friends, and the chitchat turned into a discussion about Habitat for Humanity. Graves took to heart the Habitat mission, Piechura said, and not long after, Graves put the fire district in touch with Habitat officials.

Discussions between Northwest and Habitat went smoothly, and about 18 months ago, the fire district's governing board approved the transfer of the 1.28-acre property to Habitat at no cost, Piechura said.

"It's a long-term investment," Piechura said. "We didn't get anything from the transfer, but the transfer takes the property out of a nontaxable status and now places it back onto the tax rolls."

That means that whenever Habitat starts building on the land, the property will be assessed taxes that will include Northwest's fire tax. The current rate for Northwest is about $2.83 per $100 of assessed value, and the parcel's 2013 valuation would bring in approximately $485 per year in tax revenue.

"It keeps on giving as long as there's property on it," Piechura said.

Exactly when homes will be built on the land, though, is uncertain, Habitat's McDonald said. The Pima County Board of Supervisors last month approved rezoning it to a multi-residence zone, which allows up to eight one- and two-story homes on the property, as well as a park. The buildings that are still on the property would be torn down to make way for the development.

Breaking ground is not on Habitat's immediate timetable because of other construction commitments, McDonald said. Habit has projects under way near Sunnyside High School and adjacent to the Littletown neighborhood at I-10 and Craycroft Road. Those likely would need to be finished before the Flowing Wells project begins, he said.

"Right now, we're building about 20 to 25 homes a year, and we're rehabbing 50 to 60," McDonald said. "We try to keep a full pipeline of activity. It could be two years before we break ground in earnest."

Until then, McDonald said, his organization will meet with neighbors to keep them updated on what will be built there. He said he expects the development to fit well in the area and to make the most of being on a bus line. It's also up the street from a planned community center next to Curtis Park.

"There are plenty of amenities not far away," McDonald said. "This is a great opportunity."