Beneficial Conservation

Why are Don Diamond and his Growth Lobby backing the open-space and other bond packages?

As fear of Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry's Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan spread among home builders, speculators and the real estate agents they feed, the Growth Lobby's titular premier, Donald R. Diamond, once rose in a packed land-use conference to label the plan, "dip shit."

What a difference a little time makes.

Less than two weeks before voters will be asked to take on $174 million in debt to buy up open space--one of two cornerstones of the conservation plan--Diamond and his followers are on board. They support the open-space bonds and have helped underwrite with tens of thousands of dollars the temperate campaign that urges voters to approve the open-space and five other bond questions totaling a record $732 million.

Diamond and his companies, including Diamond Ventures, are among the region's largest landowners. And what he doesn't own, he can buy. He has been the region's top player in real estate since he and his partners bought and sold vast acreage in Howard Hughes' trust.

Huckelberry, the county's top man since the end of 1993 and a county executive for 30 years, has long done a wary tango with Diamond, now 76. He and Diamond, still a key figure in the company that failed to return the county-owned Old Tucson Western theme park to its glory, are inextricably linked.

"It makes us nervous," Huckelberry says with a big laugh about Diamond's affection for the open-space bonds and the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. "We're glad. We knew he was potentially a slow learner. But the fact that he's come to our side shows a little hope for those developers. It's been a true conversion."

Steve Emerine, a former Pima County assessor and newspaper editor who advises home builders, opposes the open-space bonds. He says Huckelberry worked key people in the industry.

"Some of them saw this as a chance to perhaps gain future favors from the county," Emerine says. "Others decided that if they cooperated, the ongoing business battles between the business community and the county could end. And still others felt that if they didn't cooperate, their future dealings with the county would become even more difficult and more expensive."

Huckelberry helped his cause by rolling $10 million for land into the open-space bond to buffer Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. He picked up other interest groups, including the gun and hunting lobbies, by vowing to keep the open space truly open.

Diamond came around slowly, Huckelberry says.

"Mostly, it was just the gradual recognition that the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan is not an anti-growth measure," Huckelberry says. "When we began to go through the Comprehensive Land Use Plan, he and others saw that it had growth areas."

Two of Diamond's companies contributed a total of $20,000 to the campaign promoting the bonds. Fairfield Green Valley, which sold a big chunk of the Canoa Ranch to the county, also contributed $10,000, as did the Star Valley development company headed by Joe Cesare.

Diamond said in an interview that the infusion of bond money, the benefit to the community and bond rates made it possible to support the package.

Business and other leaders could "pick apart" pieces of the six-package deal, but the overall benefit and the goal of bring together different factions overrode criticisms of specific projects, Diamond said.

There are other reasons for the business support. The complete conservation plan is needed by governments throughout the region, as well for builders; the plan would give the ability to build under local regulations by gaining a federal Section 10 permit for showing protection of habitat for endangered species.

"It's not just about the pygmy owl anymore," Huckelberry said.

Open-space backers say the community overwhelmingly supports more purchases. They point to the $28 million in open-space debt voters approved by a wide margin in 1997. The decision was left to the few--as in fewer than one in five voters who bothered to cast ballots.

Huckelberry concedes that open-space purchases could drive up the value of Diamond's real estate, too. Diamond's slow-developing but huge Rocking K in the Rincon Valley east of Tucson was approved more than a dozen years ago. More open-space purchases in the region, including at Colossal Cave Park and along the Cienega and Rincon creeks, will only enhance the Rocking K value.

More purchases in the Tucson Mountains, where the activists on the open-space committee have pushed and prodded supervisors to spend and commit disproportionately high shares of open-space money, will increase the value of developable land.

"Obviously," Huckelberry says, "people want to live next to a preserve, not a landfill."

Developers like Diamond are supporting the other bonds, for county medical and health services, a new radio system for area law enforcement, parks, courts and sewers. All but the $150 million in sewer upgrades, repaid with monthly and hookup fees, will be repaid with property taxes, already the highest among Arizona's 15 counties.

For them, the sewer bonds are a way to spread the burden beyond the developers.

Huckelberry says open space and conservation do not conflict with sewer expansion.

"This one probably goes better than the 1997 sewer bonds, because this one is about split about 50 percent for new capacity and 50 percent for replacement and upgrades to the current system," Huckelberry says. "The 1997 bond was 75 percent new capacity."

Larry Hecker, the Tucson business and investment lawyer who is chairing the pro-bond committee, has represented Diamond companies.

Support from Diamond and others came "without arm-twisting but rather an appeal to the community conscience.

"To me it's significant and an important step. It is an opportunity to bridge sort of the gap that exists in the community," Hecker says. "Maybe we're looking at a new era."

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