New Developments

Pima County seeks to grow smart by planning infrastructure needs first

Pima County's version of smart growth means making room for 159,000 more people southwest of Tucson.
Almost 10 years after the state Legislature passed the Growing Smarter Act, Pima County is expected to start proactively addressing urban sprawl and conservation at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 11.

On the table is the Southwest Infrastructure Plan (SWIP). According to Nanette Slusser, an assistant county administrator, the county is entering new territory in how it plans for growth: Rather than waiting for available property southwest of Ajo Highway to become a patchwork of development projects, the county decided to submit its own plan amendment to the Pima County Planning and Zoning Commission, in an effort to put smart growth in action.

In October, the planning commission approved the SWIP amendment that focuses on the 44,500 acres southwest of Ajo Highway. Commission chair Bruce Gungle told Slusser that, typically, land-use amendments come before the commission via a developer. Slusser said the commission needed to move the plan along to allow the county to have new land-use designations in place to begin infrastructure planning and to lure potential developers.

Two potential developers are already on board and had amendments included in the October meeting: Pomegranate Development Co. and the Tohono O'odham Nation.

Slusser says efforts like the SWIP are the future of planning, using smart-growth principles now mandated by the state's Growing Smarter Act. The act is meant to guide county governments in initiating controls on urban sprawl and protecting open space and natural resources.

Slusser says Pima County took a close look at the Phoenix suburb of Buckeye. In 2001, Buckeye's planning department crafted a plan that looked forward at the town's future growth, expected to increase the area's population from more than 25,000 to more than 380,000 within the next 25 years. Buckeye's planning commission approved the state's largest subdivision proposal in 2003. The city created development impact fees to benefit schools, allocated open space for parks and habitat conservation and identified specific areas to accommodate growth as part of its comprehensive plan.

Slusser says the SWIP site southwest of Ajo Highway was identified by the county as a potential development area in 1980, and is now identified as a hotspot for the region's next wave of growth. It's described in the SWIP plan as 70 square miles of land bounded by Tucson Mountain Park to the north, Mission Road to the east, the Tohono O'odham Nation to the south and Sandario Road to the west. None of the property is identified as environmentally sensitive in the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, which makes it prime for residential and commercial development.

About 14,000 homes already exist in the area, according to the planning document, but the county anticipates the area could accommodate 44,000 new homes--and possibly 159,000 new residents. Slusser says the idea is to plan appropriately for growth with infrastructure and policies that work with developers, who would pay for a majority of the infrastructure costs, partially in impact fees.

In essence, Slusser says, SWIP is a necessary example of Pima County's development future: growth paying for growth.

Slusser told commissioners at the October meeting that developers do not want to deal with the hassle of redeveloping neighborhoods, but prefer undeveloped parcels. With untouched land, however, comes the need for new infrastructure.

The plan identifies that the 44,500 acres will need 247 new miles of arterial roads; 25 additional buses; 2,020 acres of parks; new wastewater facilities to support 8 million gallons per day; 40 new drainage structures for flood control; six new regional retention and detention basins; two or three new schools; two new fire stations; two new libraries; and one new sheriff's substation.

The possible price tag for this entire new infrastructure: almost $1.79 billion.

Pima County's next steps include a study to determine the dollar amount of impact fees charged to developers. Those fees would have to go before the Board of Supervisors for final approval. Other potential funding sources include the Highway User Revenue Fund (HURF) bonds and possible Regional Transportation Authority funding.

"The biggest cost is in transportation," Slusser says. This could include the realignment of Ajo Highway to the south, and the widening of Valencia and Drexel roads.

Slusser says it's important to see the SWIP plan as creating a community. Doing that requires analysis of employment opportunities and potential employers. The county also needs to address public transportation, needed to serve those who may work in the Tucson urban core.

The SWIP final report is available online. Slusser says the plan has gone through two revisions since the October planning commission meeting to address member concerns.

The timing puts another Smart Growth plan in front of the Board of Supervisors at the Dec. 11 meeting, when the Water Resources Regional Plan is to be presented for approval. The water plan changes current Pima County water policy. Developments larger than four acres would be required to address water availability in development applications. The developer would need to bring specific hydrological, ecological and water supply/demand data to the county before final approval to show that water is available to support the development. The water plan could face a 120-day delay depending on how supervisors interpret concerns brought up by the development community. At the Nov. 28 meeting, developers asked the planning commission to delay the plan in order to have time to change specific language.

According to Carolyn Campbell, executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, her organization supports the water document approved by the commission, despite the delay request by developers. Campbell says changes suggested by the coalition were included in the final document, as well as changes suggested by developers who participated in the stake holder meetings.

From Campbell's perspective, concerns expressed by the developers now are minor and could be worked out by the board at the Dec. 11 meeting. If delayed, new applications--like those from the SWIP amendments and ongoing development proposals--could move forward without the proposed water-plan policy changes.

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