Unhappy Annexation

A westside neighborhood struggles to maintain its character while fighting the city it joined.

Tracy Williams is a native Tucsonan. But her love for her hometown doesn't extend to municipal government.

"Foothill residents need to lock their doors and then run and hide from annexation efforts by the city," says Williams. "I'd much rather live in the county."

Her neighbor, Dave Piper, supported the city's 1992 effort to annex the westside area near Speedway Boulevard and Painted Hills Road where they both live. Based on his recent experience with City Hall, though, Piper says, "I probably wouldn't sign (the annexation petition) now."

With the prospects of a new development next door, for the last two years, Williams and Piper have been struggling to maintain their neighborhood character. They both believe actions by the staff of the city of Tucson concerning the proposed project will substantially harm their quality of life.

Their homes and several others surround a 6.5-acre vacant parcel cut by a wash. This sloping land is centered by a single saguaro and covered with a thick growth of ocotillo and small cactus.

Piper says a few years ago the neighbors attempted to raise enough money to buy the property themselves, but fell short. It was instead purchased by developer Jonathan Tate, who proposed 14 homes for the site, a plan that requires the installation of a water detention basin, along with substantial grading of the land.

While they weren't opposed to development of the parcel, the neighbors had many concerns about Tate's proposal. They were also stunned by the differences between how county and city regulations would affect the project.

Previous county zoning required all lots to be at least 16,000 square feet in size, so Piper was under the false impression that similar development rules would remain in place after annexation. But city regulations have a "cluster" option that permits some smaller parcels on the property. The city also allows developers to substantially raise the elevation of certain lots, allowing houses built on them to tower over the existing homes.

Unable to find a compromise with Tate, the neighbors took their concerns to the Tucson City Council. Even though the preliminary plans for the project had been OK'd by the staff last November, the council in February refused to approve the final subdivision plat for the development.

At the urging of Mayor Bob Walkup, the neighbors then prepared their own proposal. It had only 12 lots and, in their opinion, would require much less grading while accommodating an acceptable detention basin.

But Tate didn't think the alternative was technically feasible. He claims he offered to have the problems corrected if the neighbors paid for his engineer's time, but they declined.

Williams calls that statement a half-truth. The developer said he would alter the project physically if the neighbors paid for the changes. "We don't have that kind of money," Williams says.

Tate also had his attorney file a legal claim against the city. It indicated the council members could be held personally liable for their decision to deny the final plat. Based on that, and the advice they received from their own attorney, in May the council reversed itself and approved the plan. (See "Blade-and-Grade Bluff" Tucson Weekly, June 5, 2003.)

Tate's lawyer, Larry Schubart, says his client "met all code criteria (for the project) and there were no other features to permit denial, so the Council doesn't have the right to say 'No.'"

The neighbors attorney, Stephen Smith, replies: "I think it is ridiculous that the council doesn't have any discretion on final plat approval."

After the council's flip-flop, Tracy Williams vented her frustration over the city staff's handling of the entire process. She believes they always backed Tate when interpreting development code requirements and charges the staff with unethical acts, being "slipperier than slime," and favoring developer's profits over the residents' quality of life.

Development Services Director Ernie Duarte says his staffers "have a neutral position and don't take sides. I hope she understands and respects the role of the city staff and moves on."

But Councilmember Jose Ibarra, who represents the area, has drawn a different conclusion from this case.

"The city staff should learn it can't continue to practice false advertising with annexations," he says. "They will lie and exaggerate. It is a shame the staff gives people false expectations before they're annexed, knowing that once an area is in the city, there's no way out."

To try to correct that problem, Ibarra favors requiring a legal contract be prepared which would put in writing everything the staff has told an area being wooed for annexation. "It's the only way to hold the city accountable," he says.

Albert Elias, who oversees annexations for the city, agrees that it's important that the staff make clear the differences between county and city regulations, but also believes stronger development regulations are necessary.

"Our requirements may need to change to improve development compatibility, architectural guidance, and protection of environmental resources," says Elias. "That's really the key. If the city staff has rules in place, we'll enforce them."

For his part, Tate has only disdain for the council. "They do what they think will get them re-elected, and in this case, (they) bought votes with taxpayers money," he says.

The developer believes the delay in approving his project has cost him $90,000, but Schubart says they will settle with the city for less than $50,000. In the meantime, Tate expects work to begin on the project before the end of July.

Meanwhile, Tracy Williams remains bitter at the city staff. She has begun a petition drive to de-annex her neighborhood from Tucson--even though she realizes it is only a symbolic move that can't really happen.

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