The Road To MDA

Jerry's Kids Want A Stoplight For Their Foothills Headquarters.

JERRY LEWIS IS calling the Board of Supervisors. And calling. He's signing his name to letters to the editor.

Soon, Jerry may be in the middle of the high-octane executive traffic on Sunrise Drive, flailing to get it to stop so that Robert Ross and other Muscular Dystrophy Association big shots can turn left to leave MDA headquarters at La Paloma Corporate Center in the Santa Catalina Foothills.

Jerry is not having much luck with the Board. Even Mike Boyd, the Republican supervisor whose district includes MDA and neighboring La Paloma Country Club, is not taking the calls.

And that, Pima County officials say, has Jerry plenty cranky.

As the MDA's national chairman, Jerry Lewis entered the latest round of the ongoing fight with the county after MDA's other weapons failed to force the county to change the location for a proposed Sunrise Drive stoplight from Campo Abierto to Sunrise and Skyline -- the entrance to MDA's posh headquarters.

"Lives are at stake!" Ross, MDA's senior vice president and executive director, said in a letter to the Board of Supervisors.

Lured in 1990 by the county's $1.4 million pledge -- made up of Pima County's share of gasoline taxes -- MDA moved its headquarters to La Paloma from Manhattan.

Despite some official euphoria, the move has been marked with controversy. Pesky neighborhood activists down below -- in central Tucson -- protested directly to MDA when it was considering planting its offices on property fronting Pima Canyon. MDA turned the tables and did its own NIMBY work to help scuttle a proposal for a neighboring Chart house Restaurant.

Miffed that it was taking too long to get its initial mordida in nine years ago, MDA's suits badmouthed the county until four members of the Board of Supervisors hastily met in a special session in June 1990 to make the pledge.

Only Greg Lunn, Boyd's Republican predecessor, missed the meeting. Though he was an MDA supporter and the political beneficiary of La Paloma's creators, David and the late George Mehl, Lunn was probably relieved to be seeing his ailing father in Georgia.

Here's why:

Supervisors moved $1.3 million in Highway User Revenue Funds -- gas taxes for which the county was and is perennially shortchanged by the state -- to cover the bulk of a $1.48 million debt on the property MDA acquired. It was the Mehls' debt on the overall $7.3 million Sunrise Drive Improvement District. Next, the Board of Supervisors agreed to cover the gas taxes with interest earned on bonds voters approved in 1986 for transportation improvements.

Lunn's colleagues -- Republican Reg Morrison, Democrats Dan Eckstrom and Raul Grijalva, and Ed Moore, then a Democrat -- supported the giveaway.

Grijalva and Moore shared a close friend and political adviser, Ron Caviglia, who profited from the MDA deal as a consultant and lobbyist. He also was a member of the county's Bond Advisory Committee, an influential panel that advised supervisors on how to spend bond money.

MDA's new hissing match is with county transportation planners, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and the members of the La Paloma Property Owners Association, with 650 homes and seven commercial properties.

Jerry Lewis and the MDA want county permission to install a traffic light -- at the association's cost -- at the west entrance of the MDA property where East Skyline Drive splinters, with a westbound merge lane onto East Sunrise Drive and south intersection with Sunrise.

Through a months-long battle, MDA and its consultants, including former county transportation planner Curtis Lueck, have been pressing for the stop light at this oddly configured intersection.

Neighboring property owners and county officials say the light should be a little to the east at Campo Abierto, which wraps to the south behind a bank and office building to provide nifty access to MDA. That road, on the northern edge of a couple La Paloma golf course greens, now is fenced off.

Roughly 35,000 cars speed along Sunrise between North Campbell Avenue and North Swan Road daily. Drivers are halted by traffic lights at Via Palomita, Pontatoc and Calle Marques at Catalina Foothills High School. A light at Skyline would violate a county policy -- not always adhered to -- to keep lights a half mile apart.

In a report to MDA general counsel Gail Schmertz Kerner in July, Lueck proposed that seven criteria that traffic engineers and planners use from national models point to a light where MDA wants it at Sunrise and Skyline. Among the points Lueck says is "substandard geometry that results in a yield rather than merge control" for those using Skyline to get onto westbound Sunrise.

That strategy has led Lueck and MDA to proclaim that the merge lane is inadequate and should be shut down, thus creating the necessity for a stop light.

Lueck also cited accidents -- six in 1998, double the number for a previous reporting period.

Brooks Keenan, the county's transportation director, counters that at least five accidents, which could have been corrected by a traffic light, must occur at the location within a year. Of the 13 accidents at the site in the last three years, Keenan says, only one could have been prevented by a traffic light.

MDA revved up its drive for a stoplight in October, after its publicity machine couldn't push the county to reverse its decision.

Lueck's study was accompanied by letters, press releases and more letters. MDA even sent out a piece titled "Response to Misstatements by Pima County Supervisor Mike Boyd."

Boyd, who does not plan to seek a third term, has said repeatedly that a stoplight at Sunrise and Skyline would benefit "one business."

Development, as usual, also is playing a role in this spat.

On the west is the looming commercial development at Campbell. To the east, the Catalina Foothills Estates Partnerships is developing 350 new homes south of Sunrise Drive and a high-end restaurant at Sunrise and Campo Abierto.

Allan J. Tractenberg, president of La Paloma Property Owners Association, said in a recent letter to Boyd that "for MDA it may be nothing more than an issue of ego, for us within the La Paloma community, it's an issue of safety.''

"We appreciate," Tractenberg said, "the Board of Supervisors standing up for the right decision in the face of MDA's misguided publicity campaign."

Supervisors also were fortified by advice from Huckelberry, a longtime county transportation director before his promotion to county administration. Huckelberry helped engineer the MDA incentive package in 1990 but told supervisors to hold firm on the traffic light.

He said the MDA-styled light "would impede those traffic movements that have grown the fastest." MDA execs, Huckelberry added, have the luxury of a separate road that leads them right to the planned light at Campo Abierto.

The new light, which will be paid for by developers, is expected to be in place by the end of the year.

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