The Issue of Infill

Metro Tucson continues to leapfrog open land as it expands into the desert

Spreading out like a gigantic inkblot, Tucson is a blob of city plopped down on the desert. For decades, new housing developments have leapfrogged across the landscape, separated by vast stretches of open land.

The enormous physical size of the metropolitan region is shown by many Tucson street maps: The land within the city limits, along with the suburbs, doesn't all fit. The community's urban area is just too big to be contained on one piece of paper.

"An easy way out is to blame builders (for this leapfrog development)," says Roger Yohem, vice president of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association. "But logically, you have to look at market conditions. Many factors cause leapfrogging, and it's not fair to blame it on the home-building industry."

Yohem lists "ever-increasing regulatory fees," particularly in larger jurisdictions, among contributors to this situation. He says having a high percentage of government-owned land off limits to development is also a major factor.

"It's supply and demand," Yohem insists. "With a high demand (for developable land) with a restricted supply, you push development further out."

Tres English, a local activist, has studied Tucson's urban form for many years. "The reason (leapfrog development) happens is that it is cheaper to build relatively far out. Land is cheaper, and the public infrastructure is paid for (by the taxpayers). The advantage of that is the initial sales price of a home is lower when you go far away. The disadvantage is that it is more expensive for the community as a whole."

Barbara Becker, a professor of urban planning at the University of Arizona, calls buyers of large single-family homes "selfish at this point for consuming space which is more and more critical to our lives. We need to recognize that people are voting with their pocketbooks."

At the national level, critics of leapfrogging point to five areas of negative impact: the high cost to taxpayers of subsidizing the land-use pattern; exorbitant transportation expenses of getting around in these enormous communities; unnecessary destruction of the environment by utilizing land willy-nilly; quality of life issues, such as the abandonment of downtown areas; and social problems caused by a lack of investment in central cities.

Proponents of scattered land-use development counter that the practice actually pays for itself. They believe it is cheaper in the long run because of the savings in infrastructure costs which come over time from filling in the leapfrogged areas. Supporters also think leapfrogging doesn't substantially increase driving times because workplaces eventually will move closer to employees, or vice versa.

One result locally of spreading out is that Tucson drivers now log more than 20 million miles each day behind the wheel, according to the Pima Association of Governments. The impact that has on air quality is most apparent when the brown cloud of pollution hangs over the community.

While driving all those miles, however, the average commute time to work hasn't increased all that much. Despite the incessant bellyaching about traffic congestion, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that motorists in greater Tucson saw less than a two-minute increase in their drive time between 1980 and 2003.

One impact of leapfrogging, alleged by English and others, is that taxpayers have to subsidize the cost of this growth in several ways. One is by paying government employees to travel longer distances to provide public safety protection along with services such as garbage collection, and park and street maintenance.

A corollary expense of leapfrog development, critics contend, is the high price of extending infrastructure to outlying areas. When lengthening roads--in addition to water and sewer lines--to new developments, this argument goes, every Tucson taxpayer has to contribute.

"People don't count all the costs," English declares. The result: "The house that uses the most publicly subsidized infrastructure gets a competitive advantage."

SAHBA's Yohem disputes that analysis. While indicating "the new SAHBA" wants to be part of the solution on devising local development impact fees, he thinks the costs now paid by builders to install subdivision infrastructure, combined with the price of existing government mandated impact fees, cover the actual cost of development.

Tucson's new city manager, Mike Hein, doesn't buy that.

"It depends upon the impact of the development," he says. "Leapfrogging can be costly or beneficial. It depends on the density and urban services available. Something at 36th Street and Kino (Parkway) is different than on Houghton Road."

Explaining that "we don't want to put a strain on our infrastructure," Hein recalls the steps taken by the town of Marana, where he once served as manager. In some cases, depending upon the circumstances of the development, Marana imposed extra charges on top of their already-approved fees.

"Impact fees alone didn't provide enough capital," Hein explains of these cases. "We needed additional revenue from development agreements." The new city manager indicates he will ask the Tucson City Council to follow suit.

Opponents of leapfrogging also charge there are other hidden costs.

"The foothills aren't Tucson," the UA's Becker offers. "The city isn't getting their tax dollars. Those peoples' livelihoods are dependent upon Tucson, but they're not paying for (the city's) infrastructure. Cities find it difficult to meet demands while their resources are moving out of town."

Linda Rothchild, vice chair of the Rincon Group of the Sierra Club, points to another perceived negative impact: "Clearly, more and more desert and the species who live there (will be lost)," she says. "Those are the very things people come to the desert for."

While voters have approved $174 million for Pima County's Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, even Joy Herr-Cardillo of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest isn't optimistic that the plan will substantially decrease the negative environmental affects of leapfrogging. "It could have an impact," she says, "but it is a big if."

She adds: "Aesthetically, this (leapfrog) development is so unattractive while it is gobbling up the desert."

Another common complaint about leapfrogging is that it forces a disproportionate share of public spending to be done outside the urban core, while making downtown revitalization much more difficult. According to this view, people who live far away from the central city won't go there, and won't want their tax money spent there, either.

"There is tremendous neglect in the central city," Herr-Cardillo says. "Neighborhoods with old housing stock need serious work which won't be addressed. The city government doesn't have the money to maintain its existing infrastructure. There is nothing to make up for the years of subsidizing new development."

On the flip side, both Tucson's Rio Nuevo director, Greg Shelko, and Becker see some potentially positive results of leapfrogging. "It allows pitching downtown as a place to live, someplace offering a better quality of life in the center of the region," Shelko says.

But he acknowledges leapfrogging to some extent does make downtown revitalization more difficult.

After pointing out that retirees who move to town often want to live near the edge of the desert, thus encouraging leapfrogging, Becker continues: "We also see some movement away from the practice. Empty nesters and baby boomers don't need a yard. They can live in smaller houses and can walk to things if they live in an urban area."

Despite the persistent arguments over leapfrogging, with every passing year, Tucson is getting larger. In 2004, more than 9,000 single-family residential building permits were issued for the metropolitan area, meaning at least several square miles of new development were installed. In addition, from Cochise County south to beyond Green Valley, and Pinal County east toward Three Points, new residential and commercial projects are being proposed and built all the time.

This type of scattered land-use pattern is often called sprawl, which refers to low-density, single-family housing spread out all over the place. But since the days when the first adobe structures were built in Tucson, this desert oasis has predominantly been a single-story community.

While people locally have long embraced low-density development, do they endorse the leapfrog patterns of land use that have come with it? Do they accept, to quote comic-strip character Pogo, that when it comes to the causes of leapfrog development: "We have met the enemy, and he is us"?

A little history may provide an answer. From its inception thousands of years ago, Tucson hugged the banks of the Santa Cruz River like an infant holding onto its mother during a monsoon rain storm. Even after the arrival of the railroad in 1880 and the population boom of the early-20th century, Tucson clung near its urban center.

That began to change almost 90 years ago, when popular author Harold Bell Wright jumped over miles of vacant land to build his house way out in the desert, near Wilmot Road and Speedway Boulevard. A local newspaper wrote in 1930 of the community: "The homestead frontiers extend outward from Tucson as a hub for 15 miles east, 18 miles north to the Pima county line, and 24 miles west and south. ... 'Wright started the urge to live out in the wilderness.'"

Despite periodic attempts to stop the process, leapfrogging land in Tucson hasn't slowed since. From time to time, there were proposals for satellite cities to focus growth in specific areas, but they never amounted to much.

Other attempts to manage land use patterns also didn't materialize. An unsuccessful bid in 1986 to build a new community for 100,000 people on the Tohono O'odham nation near the San Xavier mission may have slowed the leapfrogging process a little--if it had been implemented. A statewide growth measure from five years ago might have had an impact if it hadn't been overwhelmingly rejected by the voters after enormous spending by the development community to defeat it.

So Tucson, along with the rest of the state, just goes zipping along, increasing in size and population all the time. With the number of people in Arizona expected to double in the next few decades, the continuation of leapfrogging can be anticipated.

But even compared to other southwestern cities, Tucson is unusually spread out. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, with a population density of less than 2,500 people per square mile, our community's urbanized area is substantially more sparsely developed than Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, El Paso, Albuquerque and even Phoenix (see chart).

One reason for the scattered patterns of development, as SAHBA's Yohem points out, is the great deal of land owned around Tucson by the federal and state governments, and the Tohono O'odham nation. The city's director of Urban Planning and Design, Albert Elias, thinks this is a major contributor to leapfrogging.

"Much of the closer in, less-environmentally constrained land, is controlled by the state," says Elias. "We need to deal with that." A current response by the city is an ongoing planning process of 10,800 acres of primarily state-owned land along Houghton Road which may eventually house almost 75,000 people.

From his perspective, Arizona's State Land Commissioner Mark Winkleman hopes to increase the number of sales by his agency around Tucson in the next 18 months. "Development leapfrogging over us is one of the results" of the state's past inability to dispose of more of its holdings, Winkleman states, adding that he believes increased land sales could put a substantial dent in local leapfrog practices.

There are other major causes of leapfrogging, including the opportunity for large-scale master-planned developments to be built in the pristine desert away from existing subdivisions. In addition, land is often cheaper far from the central city. The area's smaller communities and county governments also may have less-stringent building regulations.

Listing a variety of reasons for the land use practice, Dan Cavanagh, of the Arizona Builders Alliance says: "My understanding is the cost of regulations (is important). Across the county line, it is easier to develop there."

But with its potential cost to the taxpayers, the environment and the community, why do so many people buy homes in leapfrog developments? SAHBA's Yohem has a simple answer: money. He blames home-price variations in part on different costs of governmental charges and development impact fees.

"People will drive until they qualify for a mortgage," he says.

Calling many home buyers naive and short-sighted, Herr-Cardillo sees things differently. "People don't realize the value of location, and many of them think they can't afford to live in the central city," she says. "It seems cheaper to live on the outskirts. But with their time behind the wheel of a car and the cost of gas, it's not such a savings."

While stressing that SAHBA doesn't have a problem with infill projects, Yohem disputes Herr-Cardillo's analysis. Using a hypothetical case for a family of four who moves 25 miles away from the center of Tucson, he says: "A house built somewhere because of the reduced cost of fees may save $20,000. That goes a long way, and that's a lot of money that can offset travel time."

Will higher gas prices and more time spent driving longer distances affect that decision? The city's Elias isn't sure. "If it requires more driving for a house they can afford, (people will ask themselves), 'How much time do I want to spend?'" he says.

With leapfrogging so firmly entrenched in the local psyche, what will the Tucson of 2035 look like?

English thinks that decision has yet to be made. He believes that if the anticipated 2006 transportation sales-tax ballot question is defeated, there won't be enough government money to continue subsidizing new, inefficient development. The result, he suggests, is that Tucsonans in larger numbers will look to live in the more-urbanized area.

The Sierra Club's Rothchild says simply of Tucson 30 years from now: "It looks like we'll meet Phoenix somewhere up on I-10."

For his part, Cavanagh, of the Arizona Builders Alliance, believes: "It really is up to our local officials and citizens to decide."

Even though he doesn't offer an opinion on the question, Elias would like to see a discussion of it. "We've never had a good dialogue on the whole notion of going farther out for development," he says. "It would really be a good question to ask the community."

To address the issue, he sees the need for a comprehensive approach. "The only way to deal with leapfrogging," he says, "is to have a regional agreement on which areas will be developed first, then second, then third. It would be a geographical definition, and (the public and their elected officials) would have to buy into it with plans and decision-making."

Hein hopes the community doesn't spread out even farther from its services. At the same time, he believes the long-range plan now being prepared by the Regional Transportation Authority is critical, along with decisions on roadway projects such as the proposed Sahuarita cutoff from I-19 to I-10. "That will dictate development patterns in that area," he says. "It will show the corridors of connectivity.

"The sequence of growth is important," Hein adds. "We need to get smarter as a region about how to sequence development. We need to think ahead."

While representatives of Diamond Ventures and Cottonwood Properties declined comment for this article, SAHBA's Yohem thinks the proposed formation of a regional government is vital in determining what Tucson looks like in the future.

"We'll see the urban area continue to grow," Yohem says, "and we'll become more of a player when we have 1 million people. Big companies (are more likely) to come in. It's a magic number, and there will be a lot of changes after that."

Herr-Cardillo says that she finds the thought of Tucson in 30 years "depressing." She doubts that there is any political will to do anything.

"I fear we'll blur into a Tucson-Pinal County-Phoenix corridor of development along I-10. It will just be more of the same."