Cornering Canoa

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry Is Close To A Deal On The Ranch Purchase.

PIMA COUNTY WILL own three-quarters of the Canoa Ranch, keeping a sprawling territory south of Green Valley open space, under a virtually secret plan that would cost up to $15 million.

The county would pay Canoa owner Fairfield Homes $3.5 million from bond funds approved by voters in 1997 for open-space acquisition. The county also would seek federal and state grants and, adopting a tax scheme devised for the Starr Pass resort in 1998, will raise the balance from a 2 percent sales tax on golf, hotel stays, food, booze and merchandise.

Few people know about the proposal being developed by County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry for consideration by the Board of Supervisors this month. The loop has been restricted as Huckelberry examines the exact boundaries of the ranch, or what remains from the San Ignacio de la Canoa Private Land Grant, the survey of which was made by the United States surveyor general on March 10, 1901.

Huckelberry's efforts come four months after the Board of Supervisors, on a partisan 3-2 vote, directed him to begin condemnation efforts after protracted efforts by Fairfield failed to gain rezoning for ranch earlier last year. Democrats Sharon Bronson and Raul Grijalva supported that surprise motion by Democrat Dan Eckstrom. Republicans Mike Boyd and Ray Carroll, whose district includes most of Canoa, opposed it.

Two days later, Fairfield filed suit in Superior Court for inverse condemnation, asserting the county had assumed the ranch without just compensation. The legal argument has been confined to whether, under state law, the company's lawsuit was improper because it did not follow a legal claim against the county.

Dennis Rosen, the lawyer representing Fairfield, says claims are required by state law in cases of contracts or injuries, but not inverse condemnation. Superior Court Judge Charles Harrington, a product of the heavyweight Tucson law firm Chandler Tullar Udall & Redhair, will hear arguments on the claim issue on March 13.

Huckelberry would like to avoid a condemnation trial, where costs for the land, purchased by Fairfield for a reported $6 million, would be left to a jury and could balloon. A county appraisal has put the value of the ranch at $10.5 million, but industry experts say that represents somewhere between a low-end and midpoint.

The normally talkative Huckelberry was circumspect about the latest effort to buy Canoa. He confirmed the plan and its financing schemes and said his proposal would be forwarded to the Board of Supervisors within "a week or two." He said he has not presented the proposal to Fairfield boss David Williamson or any Fairfield representatives. Williamson could not be reached for comment, but he knows about Huckelberry's latest plan.

Research now is being done to determine what property is within the flood plain and flood way. Land prices also will fluctuate based on what's on Canoa's westside versus the eastside.

Pima County has a well-established history of buying up ranches and other properties slated for development using a variety of funding mechanisms. Huckelberry, as an assistant county manager in the 1980s, helped pioneer those methods. Some of the properties he helped acquire are the Empirita Ranch, the Posta Quemada Ranch and other properties that make up the Cienega Natural Preserve. He and various Boards of Supervisors also have not been reluctant to boost taxes to make the purchases. In 1987, supervisors jacked up flood control district taxes 43 percent to raise money to buy the huge Empire-Cienega Ranch southeast of Tucson. Instead, the federal government bought it.

Critics contend the county should not pay for property that Canoa, because of flood hazards and restrictions, would not build on anyway and would deed to the county.

But Huckelberry countered that the property could end up in worse shape: as wildcat, or unplanned, subdivisions.

It is still not clear what Fairfield, which created the retirement community of Green Valley, would be left with at Canoa. Estimates put the remaining developable property at 1,600 acres, which includes areas for commercial and residential development.

The county would acquire between 4,440 acres and 4,800 acres.

County officials say that they have little confidence in the ability of Friends of Canoa Ranch to raise significant amounts of money that could be used to preserve the ranch.

That has spurred the effort to use Starr Pass resort as a model and adopt a sales-tax scheme that mirrors the one the Board of Supervisors and Starr Pass developers agreed to in August 1998. A 2 percent tax on the 575-room resort west of Tucson will be generate an estimated $35 million over the course of 20 years. The $130-million "eco-resort" is scheduled to open early next year. In addition to giving the county 150 acres for preservation, Starr Pass developer Chris Ansley also agreed to levy the tax, which for the first 10 years gives the county 25 percent of the revenue and the company 75 percent. The shares are reversed in the second 10 years.

The purchase is sure to upset tax control advocates upset at the county's sharp financial swing: a nearly $50 million deficit about six years after the county had a $20 million surplus, causing three straight property tax increases totaling 17 percent since 1996.

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