Cluster Concerns

Environmentalists claim a proposed eco-friendly development near Madera Canyon is a Trojan horse

Tucked beneath the desert grasslands that stretch out west from the base of the Santa Rita Mountains, intercontinental ballistic missiles once waited in a snug metal silo.

The silo, sans nukes, is still there, just below the entrance to Madera Canyon--one of the West's most popular bird-watching destinations, about an hour south of Tucson. Nearby, a large sign advertises lots for sale: "36-acre and larger parcels."

Were the owners of the land actually interested in dividing the property in this way (and they very likely are not), each parcel would be cut from 1,189 acres of environmentally sensitive grassland, classified as a tier-one habitat by Pima County.

Few knew that large swaths of the Santa Rita's western bajada were privately owned until late last year, when another sign, this one much less conspicuous, went up advertising a zoning-variance hearing for a 280-home cluster-style development planned for the grasslands. Called Cielo Madera, the development would become the first large-scale residential neighborhood in the area if built.

According to conventional wisdom, cluster developments are more environmentally sensitive than other types of housing developments, with about 80 percent of the land saved as open space. So how did things move from the proposed cluster development to a sign calling for the land to be split up, wildcat-style, open space be damned?

The answer: Not everybody agrees that cluster developments are environmentally friendly.

The theory behind the cluster development, born in planning circles in the early 1980s, says that if one has a piece of land that has some particular environmental worth, yet one still wants to make money off that land, it's best to "cluster" homes and services on one small part of the land and leave the remaining majority empty, to be used as open space--thus creating a situation in which everyone, capitalists and brush-huggers alike, wins.

But many see the cluster developments as a Trojan horse, sneaking into sensitive areas with the appearance of conservation but with a dark heart underneath.

"This is just a way for developers to maximize their development rights," said Luis Calvo, a member of Friends of Madera Canyon, a group opposed to Cielo Madera.

According to statutes: "The purpose of the cluster development option is to provide ... site planning and unity of design in harmony with the natural features and constraints of specific sites, and particularly on sites possessing unique or severe topographic or hydrologic features."

Translated, that means the cluster option is a good way to develop land that can't really be developed any other way. Only secondary is the statutory goal of "protection of natural, historic and man-made elements of scenic, environmental or cultural significance."

The land has several "unique or severe topographic or hydrologic features," including a large wash that cuts through the property. It also has some serious "environmental and cultural significance," being just a mile below the entrance to Madera Canyon, a renowned sky-island ecosystem, and five miles below the Smithsonian Institute's Whipple Observatory on Mount Hopkins.

Whether or not one gives the developers--Boston-based Mike Kettenbach and Tucson-based Dale Faulkner of Faulkner Land Company--the benefit of the doubt, the fact is that cluster developments are becoming increasingly popular in Pima County.

"There are areas that weren't developed in the past because of restrictions, flood control or other factors; now there's more pressure to develop those," said Dan Signor, a planner with Pima County. "We are seeing a lot more (cluster developments) in areas previously considered to be a problem."

Before 2006, Signor said, the county reviewed about one cluster proposal a year. This year, there are five either under review or going through the process.

"Typically, there's not much opposition to these," he said.

But the Friends of Madera Canyon have decided to fight the project to the end. They don't want any large-scale development of the bajada (there are already a few homes on single lots), preferring instead that Pima County purchase the land under its 2004 conservation bond program.

"The goal of the Friends of Madera Canyon is to protect the greater Madera Canyon ecosystem and to provide for unfragmented open space," Calvo said.

About 80 square miles of the area will likely always remain open space, as it holds the University of Arizona's Santa Rita Experimental Range.

Range Manager Mark Heitlinger said he has met with Faulkner and expressed his concerns about the effect a large development would have on the range, which hosts scientists from all over the world for rangeland research in an "outdoor laboratory." He said a project like Cielo Madera could increase the number of cats and dogs on the range, and could spread invasive species.

He added, however, that a much larger residential neighborhood bordering the range on the west has resulted in few, if any, problems.

"What I've found is that our neighbors are as interested in protecting the range as we are," he said.

There is also state trust land surrounding the Kettenbach property, along with a patchwork of relatively small private holdings. Pima County owns about 200 acres, purchased in 2005. That same year, working with the Arizona Open Land Trust, county officials explored the possibility of purchasing the Kettenbach land with conservation bonds. Suffice it to say, the two groups were "millions of dollars apart," said Nicole Fyffe, manager of the bond program. A few months ago, Fyffe revisited the issue, but found Kettenbach's price had only gone up. The county is no longer pursuing a purchase.

"If they put off the development process, we would definitely approach them again," Fyffe said.

Despite the new sign, the developers likely have no intention of going wildcat with those 36-acre-and-larger parcels. Indeed, Faulkner said that they are in the process of resubmitting plans for a 280-home cluster development to the county's Design Review Committee in hopes of a hearing in June.

The 36-acre sign is meant, presumably, to show the opposition that developers aren't flinching. Faulkner said he has gotten a good bit of interest in the 36-acre plots, but he wouldn't say how much each one would cost.

"We feel like we've followed the rules," Faulkner said. "We know what (the Friends of Madera Canyon) want--they want nothing. But the reason why we are using a cluster development is that it makes more design and planning sense--the cluster is an evolution in the zoning code."

The underlining zoning on the property allows for one house every 4.13 acres, each presumably with its own septic tank. The opposition has created some models and found that, because of the unique features of the land, development with the original zoning would result in fewer homes and more open space.

There are other issues that could potentially derail the project. The area is isolated from any county infrastructure, necessitating a private wastewater facility. That will require the developers to get a permit from the Pima Association of Governments, but they need to be sponsored by Pima County to do so.

There is also evidence that the three one-lane bridges on the sole road leading in and out of the property--and the canyon--are substandard and will not hold the heavy loads created by construction traffic and increased resident traffic. Moreover, the observatory has said that 280 homes below its perch could kill the dark, rural skies necessary for viewing objects in deep space.

It will likely be a year or more before hammers start swinging, if they ever do. For now, the two parties are locked in a stalemate.

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