Out of Commission

The city's planning board slowly reviews a new land-use code proposal

New residential development in Tucson has slowed so much that it almost matches the glacial pace at which the city's Planning Commission is reviewing a major new land-use code proposal.

The group's last two meetings have been canceled due to a lack of a quorum, and they may not meet again until mid-September.

When the commission does finally get together, it will continue its lengthy discussion of a proposed Planned Community Development District (PCD) ordinance. If ever adopted, this law will significantly alter how large-scale land-use planning is done in Tucson.

"It will be completely different than what we are used to," says Albert Elias, director of Tucson's Urban Planning and Design Department. Instead of having one subdivision at a time laid out, checkerboard-style, Elias says the PCD "will lay out a process for accomplishing the Desert Village" overall planning concept approved in 2001.

A first stab at a PCD was completed three years ago, in a draft document prepared by consultant Clarion Associates. That draft suggested that on property of at least 1,000 acres, a planned community would contain residential, commercial, industrial and public uses. A mix of housing types would also be required, and at least 15 percent of all housing in the community's center would need to be "affordable."

It was after the Clarion report was completed that the Houghton Area Master Plan (HAMP) was adopted, in 2005. Over the next few decades, much of Tucson's population growth is expected to occur in the southeast part of town covered by this plan.

Elias says that the HAMP's adoption changed things substantially. "The decision hadn't been made on how to implement the HAMP (when the Clarion report was being prepared)," Elias says. It was eventually determined that the Houghton plan would be a policy statement, not a zoning plan.

"The Clarion report was done before the decision was made on what the HAMP could be," Elias says. "Thus, it's like comparing apples to oranges."

Earlier this year, Elias' department presented the Planning Commission with a draft PCD ordinance that it prepared itself. The staff proposal didn't mention the Clarion report, and it was significantly different than that document's approach.

When Planning Commission chair Dan Williams learned of the Clarion document, he asked that it be distributed to the group's membership. "It's clearer and gives more specific items," Williams says.

The city staff's original version of a Planned Community District reduced the size requirement to 500 acres and permitted the mayor and council to make it even lower. The staff document also had no mandated land uses and no requirement for affordable housing.

"A developer would know what (land-use guidelines) to follow" under the Clarion approach, says Williams. "The staff proposal didn't have that clarity in it."

Neighborhood activist Colette Altaffer has other concerns about the staff-prepared PCD. Calling it a "tiny piece of a very big, worrisome puzzle," she believes it is tied closely with several other governmental regulations. She fears future residential development "will allow for massive density increases without corresponding tradeoffs from the developer."

Altaffer also notes that last December, the City Council approved a 12-month pre-annexation agreement for just less than 500 acres near Tucson International Airport. She says this agreement, which has yet to be implemented, refers to a potential PCD and would allow for a substantial increase in residential density on the land--without it going through a typical rezoning process.

To try to sort out these and other issues, for the past several months, the Planning Commission has been reviewing the staff's suggested PCD ordinance and has recommended changes, many of which have been made. Williams believes the end result should be a balance between the original staff draft and the Clarion report.

"The staff version just (required) a master plan without specifics," Williams says. "Nothing else was necessary. The Planning Commission said it had to have a master planning document which will put the financial responsibility into developers' hands and have developers pay for the development, not the taxpayers."

Another change Williams wanted to see was a specific requirement for affordable housing. The Planning Commission also requested the original staff draft be changed to require that a PCD only be on land already covered by an adopted area plan.

The latest version of the proposed ordinance is dated July 11 and addresses that latter issue. After reading the current proposal, Williams, speaking as an individual, says: "It's real close. There are lots of checks and balances. I'm pretty comfortable with it given some minor changes."

It may not be until Sept. 19, though, that the Planning Commission will publicly review the latest draft. While the city staff is reportedly trying to organize a meeting on Aug. 22, that date remains problematic.

In the meantime, it remains uncertain when the Planning Commission will again be able to muster a quorum to discuss the Planned Community Development District proposal.

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