A New Development

A proposed county change could lead to the commercial growth that River Road residents have been fighting for years

Once construction begins on Gateway Hacienda, neighbors expect increased traffic problems along River Road.

Evan Kligman fears the semi-rural feel of his River Road neighborhood is about to disappear.

Kligman and his wife bought their home in 1998. Back then, the stretch of River Road between Dodge Boulevard and Hacienda del Sol had almost no commercial development. However, when the Kligmans received a letter from a property-management company in October 2004 that invited area property owners to sell, they worried that a commercial hub was inevitable.

On Tuesday, Dec. 15, the Pima County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an amendment to the Pima County Comprehensive Plan submitted by developer Gateway Hacienda for a 7.24-acre project south of River Road and across the street from the Kligmans' neighborhood.

The comprehensive plan had allowed blended development with low-density residential and office space. However, the developer asked the county to allow higher-density residential zoning and more commercial use.

Although the Pima County Planning and Zoning Commission voted 7-3 against recommending the amendment at a September public hearing, and recommended that the Board of Supervisors do the same, the planning staff recommended the amendment.

Before the Dec. 15 vote, Supervisor Ann Day asked developer representative Wayne Rutschman to avoid including a motel/hotel, a dance venue and/or any restaurant drive-thru on the property. She also asked that the construction be done in an environmentally friendly fashion.

Rutschman responded that the developer hasn't had much luck finding an interested motel/hotel partner because of the economy, and that a dance hall and drive-thru fast-food restaurant are not part of the development plans. Rutschman also said the developer is indeed interested in building green.

Kligman and several of his neighbors met with Day on Monday, Dec. 14, to discuss the amendment. He says they were told the 7.24 acre parcel could be annexed by the city at the developer's request—and that if the land were annexed, they'd have even less of a voice in what was done on the land.

"I'd say we're between a rock and hard spot," Kligman says.

Kligman served on the River Bend Community Advisory Committee, which was set up to help guide the widening and realignment of River Road, touted as an effort to address traffic congestion.

The alignment work helped, but Kligman says he can't help but wonder whether the realignment project—done with $22 million in bond money—was ultimately done for the purpose of increasing development.

"Back then, we were told the widening was for increased traffic, not for future commercial and high-density development," Kligman says. "We felt like there were assurances in place, but was this really a gift for developers?"

As the realignment project started, the developer began marketing a potential 15-acre project. While that project is now pared down to 7.24 acres, Kligman says neighbors have been against every proposal from the start.

At one point, the company tried to have the property annexed by the city of Tucson in order to bypass the county's long-range development plan. In April 2005, the neighbors presented the city and county with a petition against the annexation; that same month, Day came out in support of the neighborhood position against the annexation effort, which ultimately failed.

According to Pima County assistant planning director Chris Poirer, now that the supervisors have voted to approve the comprehensive-plan amendment, the county now has to determine what kind of residential and commercial properties will be allowed on the parcel. Poirer says there are more than 20 rezoning conditions that will be examined, and the developer will hold two additional public hearings to discuss those conditions with neighbors.

"What justifies an approval (for the comprehensive-plan amendment) is that (the area has) changed over the years. Because there is a school there now, it is no longer a mostly residential area," Poirer says, referring to the Al-Huda Islamic School, a private school adjacent to the development property.

"First, we look at the comp plan to see what the developer is eligible to rezone to. ... Still, there's no guarantee the area will get rezoned. Neighborhood input will be part of the public hearings; there will be a site analysis, and the developer will have to meet with the neighbors."

When asked if the property is a difficult one for planning staff to consider because of the neighborhood's history, Poirer says it's not the history that makes it difficult; the site itself is challenging. He says the county has already told the developer that the main access to the development will have to come from Hacienda del Sol, not River Road.

"We are seeing now more challenging sites," says Poirer, since there are fewer properties close to the city limits being developed in this economy.

This parcel is up against the Rillito River and has a school as a neighbor—elements which contribute to the challenges, Poirer says.

Kligman says those challenges, plus the traffic, should be reasons enough to leave the comp zoning as is.

"Every morning, I have to leave my home and make a left or right turn, and I know from my experience that the traffic is not safe, and some cars are going pretty fast. Putting in more commercial development is only going to make it worse," he says.

"Why redo this comprehensive plan? What's wrong with the last comprehensive plan? When the developer bought the property, they knew how it was zoned, so why aren't they being told that's what they have to work with?"

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