Land in Limbo

A Rita Ranch landowner finds his property tangled hopelessly in red tape

Patrick Callahan believes he was mistreated by the city of Tucson, and he now fears that Pima County and the state of Arizona are doing the same.

"I feel like the net in a ping-pong game," Callahan says, "because all I'm getting is a runaround."

Callahan's ordeal began after he bought 10 acres of industrially zoned vacant land in Rita Ranch on the city's southeast side and installed utilities (See "Development Derailed," May 12, 2005). Hoping to develop the property with small retail uses, Callahan, 58, planned to use the profits for his and his wife's retirement.

But those dreams were dashed in 2004 when the city adopted stringent land-use regulations for the area. Seeking to protect Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the new rules placed severe limitations on property in a paddle-shaped zone off of Davis-Monthan's runway. The rules restricted Callahan's land to heavy-duty industrial uses, things neither he nor his residential neighbors wanted to see on the land.

Thwarted in his development bid, Callahan turned to the government, hoping they would buy him out. One year ago, he applied to the state of Arizona for purchase from its Military Installation Fund.

Even before that, a Pima County committee identifying land around Davis-Monthan to be purchased with $10 million in local open-space bond funds had listed Callahan's property as a top priority.

While the state was moving slowly, in March of this year, the Pima County committee ordered an appraisal done on Callahan's parcel. When the approximately $8,000 study was completed in June, it showed a current value of almost $1.5 million; after discounts and sales commissions were subtracted, the bottom line was $1.12 million.

By that time, however, an Arizona Department of Commerce committee had decided the state should acquire Callahan's property, a responsibility assigned to the Department of Veterans' Services. In May, Callahan sought information from them. He says he was told: "The process usually takes years to accomplish."

Alarmed at that prospect, he turned again to Pima County, but their committee had placed his purchase on hold because of the state's action. "Callahan is eligible for consideration," says Pima County Deputy Administrator Hank Atha, a member of the local committee, "but his land is improved, so at this time, it's not a priority for purchase."

Callahan disputes that and sees another reason for the county losing interest in buying his land. "I think they were shocked at the amount (of the appraisal)," he says, "and think they want to put it on the backburner. They put these programs in place, but when things don't come out the way they want, the rules change."

Atha replies that the county has been honest with Callahan. "I have compassion for his situation, but we've been up front with him from the beginning. I understand his frustration, but don't foresee moving forward with his purchase at this time."

Callahan replies: "If I'd been told 10 months ago (about this predicament), I never would have applied for the state funds. I could pull that application now, but I've been advised not to."

Atha says that Callahan's status with the county would not change if he dropped his state application.

Pima County committee members hope Callahan's purchase by the state is expedited, and have offered to share their appraisal. But whether it can be used remains in doubt. Numerous attempts by the Weekly seeking comments from the Department of Veterans' Services were unsuccessful.

Although he's been told that the state is almost sure to purchase his property, the delay and unresponsiveness still leave Callahan understandably nervous.

"I don't trust them," he says, adding that he believes there is less than a 20 percent chance the state will purchase his property. He's also worried about the Department of Veterans' Services lack of experience in buying land. "I don't want to receive anything posthumously."

One of the reasons for Callahan's dilemma is that his property is inside Tucson's city limits. If it weren't, he could have developed it the way he originally planned, because Pima County hasn't adopted land-use regulations around Davis-Monthan like those in the city.

That means much of the land off the southeast end of Davis-Monthan's runway could still be developed by others--a fact that has led some property owners in the area to resist selling to the county.

At a Pima County committee meeting last week, member and Chamber of Commerce President Jack Camper talked about the possibility of the group buying some, but not all, of the important parcels off Davis-Monthan's runway: "I'd hate to leave the crumbs on the table that could come back to bite us on the butt."

Pressured about when Pima County might finally adopt land-use rules similar to those of the city, staff members responded that a draft may be presented to the Board of Supervisors in early 2007. But staff also indicated that if Proposition 207--which deals with governmental land-use laws--passes in November, that could affect the process.

At the same time, the committee learned that negotiations by the county are ongoing to acquire more than $7 million worth of land southeast of Davis-Monthan, which means the chances of Callahan's property being bought by the county are diminishing quickly.

Callahan has compiled two enormous three-ring binders on the process so far, and he's losing confidence that he'll ever sell his land

"I'm fighting for my (financial) life here," Callahan says, "but I've run into a 100 percent Catch-22. I'm in limbo."

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