High Noon at High Mesa

Developers yank a Catalina housing plan, but questions remain about their agreement with Amphi schools

Nearly 200 acres in the heart of the rural northern Pima County village of Catalina will stay natural--at least for now--while Black Horse Advisors, a high-powered development company, rethinks what advice it can give speculators who initially planned to bulldoze enough high desert for 580 homes.

Opposition from Save Catalina--specifically, from the overwhelming number of dissatisfied neighbors within 300 feet of the High Mesa proposal--filed enough protests to trigger a state law that would have required a four-fifths super-majority vote by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

Rather than roll those dice, Black Horse principals Chris Sheafe and Eugene Michael Carlier on Monday pulled their pared-down proposal for 498 homes on land owned by a Tucson family's trust and the Ministry for Promotion of Expository Bible Teaching, Inc.

Opponents, meanwhile, are worried about the effect of what they see as "back-room deals" Sheafe and Carlier cut to win the blessing of Amphitheater Public Schools officials.

In a written notice to county planning officials, Sheafe said that the withdrawal was made "reluctantly," and that he and Carlier "delayed our final decision on this matter because we had wanted to allow sufficient time for any positive response from the Catalina neighborhood interests. Unfortunately, additional time did not result in further discussion."

The proposal received a thumbs-down from the advisory Planning and Zoning Commission on Feb. 28, when the commission voted 6-1 to recommend that the Board of Supervisors deny the zoning change that would have allowed a subdivision with three to four homes per acre (rather than one per acre) in a part of town where horses are common.

Opposition has been fueled, in part, by a clear and easy comparison. Black Horse scraped off 188 acres for Black Horse Ranch, several long blocks south of High Mesa, for more than 400 homes. Residents can see the KB Homes there, providing a stark contrast to the slower, lot-by-lot development that has characterized rural Catalina.

"We've been hit so much with that 'wildcat subdivision' attitude," says Diane Murphy, a Catalina resident who opposes the High Mesa development scheme as well as the tentative agreements the developers worked out with the county and the Amphitheater Public Schools.

Neither Murphy nor any of her neighbors who opposed High Mesa are rejoicing about the delay: They have justified wariness. Residents of the unincorporated community are in political limbo. Sharon Bronson, the Democratic chairman of the Board of Supervisors, dumped Catalina from her mostly rural district during controversial redistricting in 2001; since Catalina voters can't help her in the next election, Bronson's not in any hurry to help them--Murphy and others say they've even had trouble getting Bronson to return their calls. (This fall, Catalina voters will vote in the mostly foothills district represented by Republican Ann Day.)

There is another reason for wariness. Sheafe, once the brains behind Tucson's former homebuilding leader, The Estes Co., preserved his right to reschedule the rezoning by pulling his proposal on Monday. He would have been forced to wait a year had the board killed his plan.

Neither Sheafe nor Carlier is a Catalinan. Sheafe lives in a $2 million home on Finger Rock Place above Tucson; Carlier lives in an Oro Valley home he purchased three years ago for $1.3 million.

Their High Mesa proposal put the Amphi school district back in a prominent position in the growth wars. Amphi, under administrations and board majorities swept out in recall and reform in 2000, had largely been seen as a developers' puppet. Indeed, Vicki Cox Golder, a longtime Amphi board member, is a leading Realtor in Pima County and former president of the Tucson Association of Realtors. She also was an unsuccessful candidate for the Board of Supervisors, against Bronson, in 1996.

Amphi not only signed off on High Mesa, but would have parceled out seats in crowded elementary schools to the residents of the new subdivision, leaving children in other parts of Catalina to face possible busing.

The issue of student shifts came to light with the release of agreements and correspondence between Amphi officials and Sheafe. The agreements were worked out with Amphi Superintendent Vicki Balentine and Associate Superintendent Todd Jaeger, also Amphi's lead counsel, in at least one session Sheafe had with them at Jaeger's home.

The discussions, according to an Oct. 12, 2003 letter Sheafe sent to Balentine, produced a plan for the High Mesa development to contribute $1,200 per home to Amphi as a sort of impact fee.

But that $696,000 (from $1,200 on 580 homes) was chopped severely when Sheafe subtracted the $525,000 he said was the value of 15 acres to be handed over to Amphi. The land and a $171,000 cash contribution--which will dribble in at $1,200 per home only when homes are sold--plus a 40-acre donation of High Mesa property to the county, are appeasement gifts that infuriate Murphy.

Even more infuriating is the notion, contained in a Nov. 12, 2003 Jaeger memorandum, that such developer donations would guarantee that children from that subdivision would not be bused, while others from older parts of Catalina would be bused to less-crowded schools in the Amphi district, which stretches as far south as Grant Road.

Jaeger proposed two solutions for growth-related crowding: One, to redraw school boundaries and, two, to "identify just the 'pockets' of the new enrollment that cannot be absorbed into the schools normally serving that area and assign just those pockets to different schools."

That provision, according to Jaeger's proposal, was obviated by "development donations."

For Murphy, that leaves simple questions for which she has not received answers.

"If there is only one seat left in the kindergarten at Coronado school," she asks, "who will allowed to attend there? Will it be the child of a new family within the wall of Black Horse Ranch whose developer has entered into a donation agreement of $1,200 per home? Or will it be the first child of a family who has lived in Catalina for years and paid that much or more in school taxes?"

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