Bus-Yard Blues

Plans for a Catalina Foothills School District facility have left neighbors upset and suspicious

Distrust and confusion surround a proposed Catalina Foothills School District bus facility—and the school board may or may not vote on the controversial issue at its Dec. 14 meeting.

"I apologize for the district's process," CFSD governing board member Carole Siegler told a group of 35 people attending a Catalina Foothills Association (CFA) meeting last week. "It wasn't a good-neighbor thing to do."

The issue began innocently enough in November 2009, when district voters approved a $23 million bond package. Included was $433,000 to upgrade the district's school-bus facility, an improvement partially intended to provide cost savings to the district.

Buses now park on the southern third of a triangle-shaped slice of property adjacent to the district's administrative headquarters on River Road. The site also contains a trailer for drivers as well as portable toilets—features that some have called "embarrassing."

After the bond measure's approval, district officials prepared a $1 million plan for the new bus facility. In June, these documents were submitted to Pima County for review; they called for moving the bus parking to the northern third of the triangular lot. South of there, a drivers' lounge and bus-maintenance facility for minor repairs would be built.

In addition, an existing below-ground fuel tank would be replaced with an above-ground facility. Existing erosion issues on the site were also slated to be addressed.

Access for the buses was to remain on Camino Escuela, which runs north off River Road. But the new driveway would be located considerably north of the existing one. The parking lot was relocated in order to avoid an easement which expires in 10 years and is owned by an adjacent property owner.

North of River Road, Camino Escuela is a paved street as it passes the existing parking lot. It then turns into a dirt road that meanders in front of large homes built amidst lush desert vegetation.

Problems began in September, when a nearby resident saw people with blueprints on the school district property. When she and her neighbors discovered what was planned, they were outraged.

In response to the public outcry, the school district put the project on hold. Associate superintendent Terry Downey then met individually with small groups of neighbors and representatives of the CFA.

As a result, district officials publicly committed to changing the plan: The northern third of the property would remain vacant, they said, and the buses would continue to be parked on the southern end of the site.

Even though district officials repeatedly endorsed those revisions, the plans on file with Pima County weren't altered to reflect the changes. Instead, a staff member of the county's Development Services Department inserted red boxes onto the document in hopes of clarifying the district's intentions. While the plans still show bus parking on the northern third of the site, the red box pointing to it reads: "Area to be graded, hydro-seeded and remain undeveloped at this time."

This attempt at clarification actually further confused the issue: The phrase "at this time" made some neighbors fear that the district eventually intended to put the bus parking on the northern end of the site.

For that reason, it was a mostly skeptical group of 40 district taxpayers who attended a school board meeting on Nov. 23 to express their displeasure with the project.

One of them, 37-year district resident Tom Pew, told the board he didn't think the land use was appropriate for the location. After the meeting, he explained: "It's an incursion of light industrial use into a neighborhood."

Pew also told the school board: "The plan says future development (of the northern one-third of the property) will go forward."

In response to this and other criticisms of the project, district superintendent Mary Kamerzell stated: "There's no phased proposal here."

Following the meeting and an inquiry from the Weekly about the plans on file with Pima County, the superintendent sent Downey an e-mail. "We better figure out where that document came from," Kamerzell told her assistant. "... Obviously, without 'the rest of the story' about this construction document, the reporter might buy into the notion that we were trying to pull a fast one on the neighborhood!"

In response to the Weekly's query, in an e-mail, Downey wrote about the documents at Pima County: "We have not submitted revised plans to the county, nor has our architect."

At the Nov. 23 meeting, Kamerzell told the board that a decision needed to be made soon if the project was to be completed by next summer. Nevertheless, the board postponed action until at least Dec. 14.

Sentiments at last week's Catalina Foothills Association meeting were that a much longer delay is warranted in order to hold more discussions concerning the project.

Attorney David Hill also noted at the meeting that zoning rules don't apply for school districts. Then he remarked: "The process has discouraged people."

As for the process that the district employed, Downey comments in an e-mail: "In retrospect, we could have done a much better job of communicating with the neighbors regarding the project."

To regain people's trust, Pew thinks the board next week will have to show that it is capable of going back to the drawing board and considering alternative locations for the bus facility.

If they don't do that, Pew cautions: "They'll have converted the district into one where voters defeat a lot of issues. That would hurt education, and I'm not interested in having that happen."

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