Hornet's Nest

The latest development plan near Honey Bee Canyon leaves Oro Valley activists buzzing.

Few will argue that Honey Bee Canyon is one of the most beautiful spots on the border of the booming town of Oro Valley. As a first-class riparian area home to a perennial stream, the canyon serves as a vital wildlife corridor.

But its spectacular desert beauty also makes it an ideal spot for million-dollar homes, which explains why Vistoso Partners is now seeking to develop 358 acres just south of the canyon. The current county zoning allows some 90 homes on the parcel; Vistoso Partners' plan would expand that number to 116 low-density homes on 173 acres that border Honey Bee Canyon itself, as well as a Ritz-Carlton resort and 88 condos elsewhere on the property.

Hector Conde, an ecological activist in Oro Valley, is working on a referendum campaign to reverse the town's effort to annex the property because he's critical of Vistoso's preliminary map, which, as he puts it, "we don't like at all." Although his political organization, Citizens for Open Government, only needs to collect fewer than 500 valid signatures to put the annexation question to voters, the group hopes to collect roughly 800 signatures to provide a buffer against legal challenges.

The current fight is a reprise of a battle fought just a few years ago. In 1997, the Pima County Board of Supervisors rejected a proposal to rezone the property for higher-density development.

The property owners then approached the Oro Valley Town Council, offering to allow the town to annex the land provided the council agreed to an increase in density. The town council agreed to the proposal, but a group of citizens gathered enough signatures to put the question on the ballot. Recognizing the prevailing political winds were less than favorable, the property owners withdrew their request and sold the land to Vistoso Partners, the 800-pound development gorilla in Oro Valley.

Like the earlier proposal, Vistoso's new plan for the property will require an amendment to the town's general plan. Vistoso has offered to sweeten the proposition by giving the town 1.6 acres of land for two reservoirs to serve the area, including the Ritz-Carlton resort Vistoso hopes to build. If the town council does not agree to amend the town's general plan to Vistoso's pleasure, Oro Valley taxpayers will be required to pay Vistoso the appraised value of the property, which could climb as high as a half-million dollars.

Last month, the town council voted 3-2 to approve this pre-annexation agreement. Councilman Dick Johnson, who voted on the prevailing side along with Werner Wolff and Bart Rochman, says the pre-annexation agreement doesn't bind the council to any future course of action, although he concedes that it is "an incentive."

"I'm prepared to pay for the land, mentally and so on," says Johnson. "We always pay for our land." But he muses that the money saved by not paying for the land could be spent on open space somewhere else in the town.

Oro Valley Mayor Paul Loomis opposed the agreement. "I didn't think the pre-annexation agreement was necessary," he says, "nor was it in the town's best interests."

Councilman Fran LaSala is more blunt. "It's a terrible thing for the town. It appears to put a price on a public process ... . To me, that's wrong. I don't think you ever trade money for votes, and I think that's exactly what's happening here."

The potential quid-pro-quo upset a number of Oro Valley citizens, who launched a petition drive to force a public vote on the reservoir deal. But that ill-fated effort came to a halt when Town Attorney Dan Dudley announced the vote was not subject to referendum because it was an administrative rather than legislative act.

Meanwhile, the deal between the town council and Vistoso is swiftly advancing. The town has already voted to annex the property, which led Conde and company to launch another petition drive to halt the annexation as currently structured.

"I think they're referring the wrong item," says Loomis, who voted in favor of the annexation because he believes the land should be a part of Oro Valley. "They should wait until a general plan amendment or a rezoning is brought forward."

Vistoso Partners seems unlikely to back down in the face of the referendum. The process is speeding along; this week, Vistoso made its first appearance before the town's Planning and Zoning Commission.

Still, if the referendum's backers are successful in gathering enough signatures--and the town doesn't find a technical reason for rejecting the petitions--the project may be thrown a bit off track. A public vote couldn't come before September or November, and if the council waits until the next regularly scheduled Oro Valley election, voters wouldn't go to the polls until next March. Loomis says he has "no idea" when the council would schedule an election.

Johnson wants to see a "win-win" situation for the town and the developer. "I think people need to understand that Honey Bee is going to be preserved and not everything that's done up there in the Stone Canyon area hits on Honey Bee, and that the town government is committed, absolutely committed, to preserving Honey Bee and all the wildlife corridors and riparian areas."

But LaSala believes Vistoso Partners should stick by the current general plan.

"They agreed to a certain zoning when they came into Oro Valley and I think they should stick by their agreement," he says. "It's not like they haven't built 5,000 houses, a couple of golf courses and a Ritz. It's not like we've stopped them. But at some point, you've got to say, when are you going to give something back?"

Citizens for Open Government will be collecting referendum signatures at 10 a.m. on Saturday, April 7, at the Riverfront Park in Oro Valley, 551 W. Lambert Lane. Call 825-7342 for more information.

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