Petition Repetition

Another referendum drive is launched in Oro Valley.

In Oro Valley, it's déjà vu all over again--again. For the second time in four months (and umpteenth time in the last decade), citizens are pounding the streets in a petition drive. This time, they're collecting signatures to stop the affluent suburb's biggest developer, Vistoso Partners, from building yet more luxury homes in virgin desert.

Hector Conde, a leader with Citizens for Open Government, says his political committee wants to reverse the Council's July 18 vote taking the first step to allowing Vistoso Partners an opportunity to build 90 stately mansions in Neighborhood 11, a 60-acre patch of prime Tortolita Mountain foothills now reserved as open space in the town's general plan.

Oro Valley Councilmember Fran LaSala spins the vote as preservationist, saying the town hopes to get something in return for the vote. He points out that Vistoso can keep Neighborhood 11 in an exclusive gated community, denying public access to the open space.

"It's become glaringly obvious to me that they're going to develop in that open space in Neighborhood 11," LaSala says. "If they don't do it today, they're going to do it next year or the year after. And they will get exactly what they want and I don't know that there will be a Council in place to get anything for the town in return. Sometimes you have to make the deal while the deal is out there."

So here's LaSala's deal: In return for the new development rights, Vistoso must provide trail access into the mountain park and deed property near Honey Bee Canyon to the Town of Oro Valley. In addition, the town wants the developer to create a 300-foot buffer along the canyon so that new homes can't be seen from the canyon's base.

"It was a last-ditch effort to try to preserve as much of Honeybee Canyon as we can before somebody starts going willy-nilly with development up there," says LaSala.

While Vistoso officials mull over the deal, Conde remains skeptical. "They keep saying it's better this way, but I don't know," he says. The area, he explains, slopes upward toward the foothills of Tortolita Mountain Park and into the Tortolitas themselves. "There's a lot of wildlife going through," he says.

Conde adds that the developer isn't bound by the "considerations" that the Council put forward. LaSala agrees the considerations don't carry any legal weight, but "that's only because we cannot put conditions on a document that's not a final plat or zoning." He says the process is just beginning and he'll push for those conditions before working to advance the amendment: "Anything less than this I would be hard-pressed to support."

He adds a veiled warning about the majority of his colleagues, pointing out that he's just one vote out of five. "Three votes win in Oro Valley," he says. "There may be three Council members who might see this whole issue very different and say 'We think these conditions are ridiculous, and we're just going to vote to change the general plan and give the PAD amendment and go forward.' That's always an option."

The referendum follows on the heels of an earlier effort to derail a deal with Vistoso Partners regarding a land exchange with the town. (For details, see "Hornet's Nest," April 5.) The developer offered to donate 1.6 acres of land for two reservoirs to the town in exchange for additional development rights in an area bordering Honeybee Canyon. If the town doesn't allow the construction of new homes in the area, it must pay up to $500,000 for the reservoir property.

The quid-pro-quo arrangement galvanized Oro Valley activists, who quickly gathered roughly 1,000 signatures to force a public vote on the proposal. That proposition will appear on the ballot in March 2002, as will the latest effort, provided the group succeeds in gathering the required 545 signatures by August 20. With the final decision on the plan delayed until next year, the developers may abandon the deal altogether and force the town to simply pay for the land.

LaSala, who says he "kinda expected" the latest referendum, is careful not to bash its supporters. "The people who are referring this are very passionate about this," he says. "I wish them all the luck to try to get the signatures that they need. I respect Hector Conde very much. I think he feels as passionately about the referendum as Vistoso feels about building in Neighborhood 11. Somewhere in the middle, there's the right answer."

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