Sacred Domain

Officials and neighborhood leaders try to gauge Proposition 207's pending effects

On this crisp Saturday morning, the Jefferson Park neighborhood is a quiet mix of cars, joggers and the occasional dog watering a lawn. But things aren't always so serene in the tidy, middle-class enclave stretching along the UA's northern flanks.

In Jefferson Park, it's not rare for unscrupulous landlords to squeeze a dozen students into a single rental house, or for those houses to erupt with huge weekend parties.

Bob Schlanger is vice president of the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association. And more times than he can count, he's called the cops when such parties spin out of control. Those are the student bashes where "gang-bangers show up, and start selling drugs right out of their vans like it's Walgreens," he says.

Although the neighborhood is zoned for single-family dwellings, some builders have also constructed so-called "mini-dorms," or homes with seven or eight bedrooms and tons of toilets. "We're being overrun by predatory developers who are destroying the neighborhood," Schlanger says. "People are violating the intent of R1 zoning, which is single-family residential. They're turning it into residences where anywhere from four to 12 kids can live on one property. And that's crazy."

To beat back this raucous onslaught, Jefferson Park labored long and hard to fashion a neighborhood-preservation plan which, if favored by the Tucson City Council, would essentially enforce a one-family-per-lot rule.

Then came the 2006 election, and an insidious but ultimately successful ballot measure called Proposition 207. The new law is widely known for restricting local governments' ability to seize private property through eminent-domain condemnation. It drew much of its impetus from Kelo v. City of New London, a recent U.S. Supreme Court case where the court ruled that cities can seize properties through eminent domain, and then award them to another private party.

But far less obvious in the measure is language ensuring "that Arizona citizens receive just compensation if they lose their property or lose the value of their property when government takes or enacts a law that diminishes the value of private property." In terms of Jefferson Park, that means any landlords suddenly restricted from turning their properties into the Animal House could potentially file a claim with the city.

To folks like Schlanger, that's a farce, especially since mini-dorm perpetrators could mostly give a rat's ass about Jefferson Park itself. But to Tucson City Attorney Mike Rankin, it's just one example of how the new, voter-approved state law is about to make his life a lot more complicated. "We've obviously had many discussions about Prop 207," he says.

In fact, Prop 207 could wreak havoc with Tucson's plans on everything from enhancing neighborhoods like Jefferson Park, to protecting washes and other wildlife habitat throughout the city. "It could absolutely have an affect, to the extent that the mayor and council might be interested in adopting new overlay zones or new regulations within historic areas, or placing new restrictions on the ability to develop in those areas," Rankin says.

"It doesn't necessarily mean that we can't adopt a regulation or that we'll have to pay money each time. But it means that folks will have the ability to bring a claim and say, 'Hey, you've diminished my property value by x number of dollars, and I demand to be compensated.'"

Then the city faces a judgment call. "We can choose to either pay them the money, or get a waiver from application of the regulation. Or we can contest their claim. We'll just have to evaluate it case by case."

Either way, Rankin predicts the courts will be clogged with such claims. Judging from experiences in other states, that's an apt divination. For example, a similar measure passed two years ago in Oregon also requires the state and counties to compensate land owners whenever development on their property is restricted. To date, Oregon landowners have filed compensation claims reportedly topping a total of $2.5 billion. Unable to pay those sums, counties are instead allowing development into rural areas once restricted to farming.

In Southern Arizona, many worry that Prop 207 will cripple the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan and harm the ability to protect endangered species.

Meanwhile, Jefferson Park residents and city officials are still pushing their preservation plan. That's according to Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, whose Ward 3 encompasses the midtown neighborhood. "I'm sure the city attorney's office will need to be actively involved to make sure that we're paying attention to potential implications with 207," she says. "But we're not hesitating to proceed with that process. The neighborhood has already invested a lot of time and energy. And it's still a priority of ours to support their effort."

Indeed, local officials do have some wiggle room when it comes to Prop 207. For instance, owners can't make a claim when they purchase property already carrying restrictions. "It's caveat emptor," Rankin says. "If you bought a property after the regulation is in place, then you own that regulation."

And as court cases pile up, local governments may start arguing that regulations such as wash protection or Jefferson Park's plan actually boost property values. When owners complain about a new regulation, "We're in a position to say, 'You're right; it's a new regulation, but it's not diminishing your property value,'" Rankin explains. "In fact, it's increasing (that value) by preserving its best and highest use."

Uhlich considers that a beefy argument as the city struggles to preserve washes and other open space. "There might be people saying, 'Hey, now I don't get to do what I want with my property,'" she says. "But a lot of times, when you get open space, you're effectively increasing the value of adjoining property."

For Jefferson Park residents, Prop 207 is just another skirmish in the long fight to preserve their neighborhood. And Bob Schlanger harbors few illusions about where this battle will end. Now he stands on the curb, pointing out where one builder recently tried to sneak in a mini-dorm before neighbors nailed him on a technicality.

"My reading of this situation is that the city is going to wait for somebody to file a lawsuit," he says. "In the meantime, we're going full-steam ahead."