Overlay Overload

Will the latest Drachman School controversy cause the City Council to zone out?

IT'S THE PROCESS, NOT the project, that now has opponents crying foul about the proposal to use the old Drachman School site as housing for the elderly. They contend the City of Tucson is abandoning citizen participation in favor of dictatorial decision-making in order to ensure the project is built.

Critics of constructing 62 new housing units around what remains of the 50-year-old structure are livid over a proposal to create a Drachman "overlay" zone. This zone, if approved by the City Council on Monday night, would retain the underlying residential use allowed on the land while reducing the number of required on-site parking spaces from 31 to 16, decreasing the distance to adjoining buildings from 21 to 14 feet, and shrinking the required landscape border on the site.

But it isn't even these variations to normal zoning code requirements that have critics of the project outraged. Instead, it is how these changes are being jammed down the throats of the downtown barrio residents that angers them the most.

In usual cases, a development that requires reductions in zoning requirements must request variances from the city's Board of Adjustment. After nearby property owners are notified of a public hearing and allowed to speak, this quasi-judicial body makes a decision.

In the Drachman School case, however, because city planners couldn't guarantee the Board of Adjustment would approve all the needed zoning code changes, the city is proposing to adopt a specific overlay zone for the project. This type of zone has never been used in this way in Tucson before; it only needs approval by the City Council, which in the past has repeatedly supported the Drachman School conversion.

The process is also being implemented without notifying either the adjacent property owners or the impacted neighborhood association. Only an obscure and obliquely written display ad, buried within the morning newspaper, informed the community of the proposal.

At a recent public hearing held before the city's Planning Commission, supporters of the elderly-housing project urged approval for the overlay zone. Longtime barrio resident David Carter said the project would bring affordable housing to the neighborhood and increase diversity in the area.

Other proponents feel adoption of the overlay zone is the only way construction of the elderly-housing units can begin by the end of the year. For months, both Tucson city staff and project backers have claimed if construction isn't underway by December, $3.5 million in federal funding for the housing complex will be lost. According to project architect Richard Fe Tom, to meet that schedule requires approval of the overlay zone and submission of building plans to the city no later than the middle of July.

While supporters of the housing project keep insisting December is a drop-dead date, that isn't necessarily so, according to a spokeswoman for HUD's Multifamily Housing Office in Washington, D.C. She says that any further time extensions must be granted through the headquarters by the Assistant Secretary for Housing. And, she adds, "It is possible."

Opponents of the project, however, are more concerned about the impact of the proposed overlay zone than with the fibbing being done about the project schedule. At the Planning Commission public hearing, in addition to strongly criticizing the city for not mailing notices of the meeting to nearby residents or the affected neighborhood association, several speakers pointed to dangers in the "overlay" approach to land-use regulations.

Jake Elkins, a graduate student in urban planning at the University of Arizona, said, "Approval of this zone will be historical and it will rock the city for a long time to come. The process will open a whole new era of land-use regulations for Tucson. This kind of overlay zoning is opening the prospects for a lot of questionable zoning."

Jody Gibbs, the original architect for the Drachman School project, was more pointed. To obtain favorable zoning requirements without having to go through a public process, Gibbs said, "I can imagine Don Diamond using this technique with the support of six of his friends on the City Council."

Barrio Viejo Neighborhood Association president Pedro Gonzales added, "We didn't get notification of this meeting. The only thing we've seen about it was tonight. We don't understand the impacts of the overlay zone, but think it could really hurt."

After the public had spoken, most of the members of the Planning Commission took turns taking verbal pot shots at the proposal. Bob Morgan, one of City Councilmember Shirley Scott's appointees to the panel, was the most outspoken in his criticism. He blasted the idea as "an end run around the Board of Adjustment." He labeled the whole thing tantamount to spot zoning and a dangerous idea.

The commission voted 7-1 to urge the City Council to deny the overlay zone, stressing that the process was totally deficient and that they were flabbergasted at the lack of public notification. Members of the commission also vehemently demanded that they never see this type of overlay zone again.

A decade ago, Tucson City Attorney Michael House wrote the state statute that permits this overlay zone, and he proposed its use in the Drachman School case. House argues that this isn't spot zoning, saying that label only applies to granting a zoning privilege that is inconsistent with an adopted general plan. That isn't true in this situation, he says.

On Monday evening at the Tucson Convention Center, the City Council will decide the issue. But that may not be the end of the Drachman School controversy. There has been talk of legal action if the Council supports the overlay zone. Opponents also have the opportunity to appeal the issuance of buildings permits and use other time-delaying techniques to try and kill the project.

In voting to recommend denial of the overlay zone, the Planning Commission sent the clear message it didn't want the Drachman School project built at the expense of the city's zoning regulations. It was saying construction of the project wasn't worth the harm to the community that would result from sacrificing standard zoning procedures. The question is: Will the City Council listen?

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