Pay As You Grow

The City is developing a sprawl-control plan that skips over boundaries but sticks on impact fees.

Ready for Round 2 in the growth-management ballot battle?

Tucson voters will see another growth-management plan on the ballot this November, but don't expect the same kind of multi-million-dollar propaganda war.

This time out, the City Council will be placing its general plan on the ballot as required by Growing Smarter, the growth-management program created in recent years by the Arizona Legislature and Gov. Jane Dee Hull.

Don't expect much rancorous debate. The plan is being quickly assembled by city staff. The details are scheduled to undergo public review in the next few months before it's finalized in time for the November election, but it's safe to say the plan won't contain radical concepts like urban growth boundaries. Instead, it will set broad policies regarding where and how development should occur while opening the door, perhaps, to impact fees within the city limits.

The one public element of the plan thus far came from the city's short-lived Cost of Growth Taskforce, which met at least weekly between October and early January to hammer out a report suggesting a number of policies related to the cost of growth.

While he acknowledges a tight timeline, taskforce chairman Arlan Colton says his group prepared "a pretty darn good starting point" for the city to build on.

The plan recommends a number of goals for making growth pay its "fair share," as the Growing Smarter legislation requires. The legislation, however, leaves it up to communities to define "fair share."

Among the taskforce's suggestions:

· Recover costs not just for transportation, but for libraries, parks and rec, police and fire facilities, water service and other facilities.

· Establish an ideal level of service for those services and facilities and determine the "fair share" costs that new development creates from that baseline.

· Use mechanisms like impact fees and special taxing districts to cover those fair-share costs.

· Consistently apply the same policy to all new development, instead of what Colton calls the "horse trading" that now goes on when developers seek rezonings.

The taskforce's report doesn't say where Tucson will grow. "We stayed away from anything that would direct where growth in the city should be, because that's not the role of this element," says Colton. "This element was to say regardless of where growth goes, here's how it's paid for. Here are the policies you should look at to pay for it."

A former planner with the state land department who is now preparing to serve as a volunteer co-chair of Gov. Jane Dee Hull's recently appointed Growing Smarter Commission, Colton says the taskforce didn't address those questions because the city needs to officially adopt a policy of enacting, for example, impact fees to lessen the likelihood of being challenged in court. "This is step one," he says.

Paul Mackie, a strong proponent of impact fees who was appointed to the task force by Councilman José Ibarra, was disappointed the group didn't go further, although he praises the effort that went into the report.

"A lot of the people there weren't prepared to go too far," says Mackie, whose career includes a number of private and public jobs, including a stint as head of the Pima Association of Governments. "I think they all recognized that some things really need to be done, but they were reluctant to come out and take a hard position and say, for example, we need a transportation tax or a sales tax. Some of us like me say we need to go ahead on impact fees. You need to start doing something like that, only because if nothing else, a lot of the other possible money sources are not going to be there."

Mackie foresees federal and state funds drying up in the future, which will hike taxes and service fees across the board. Tucsonans have already been hit with increased water and sewer fees, while the City Council will likely weigh a fee for garbage pickup--euphemistically called an "environmental fee"--and a sales tax hike for roads or public transit in the future.

"Here you have this whole system that's going to be based on adding fees and surcharges on the lower end of the scale," says Mackie. "Who's going to pay for the new water rate increase? Who's benefiting from this growth? Those who benefit the most should be absorbing a greater share of the costs."

Analyzing those costs will likely prove to be a contentious future fight. For example, Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association honcho Alan Lurie, who was appointed to the task force by Councilwoman Carol West, says that growth already pays for itself. He insisted the task force's report include an academic study of five Tucson subdivisions that he says proves his point.

Mackie dismisses the SAHBA study, complaining that it simply disregards many of the expenses brought on by Pima County's relentless growth. The true cost can be seen each and every day in our community.

"If growth pays for itself, with all the growth we've had in Tucson, why are we in such a hole?" asks Mackey. "If we've had more growth than we know what to do with, why are we getting farther and farther behind?"

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