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Valley Divide 

Oro Valley residents criticize the community's proposed general plan.

When the Arizona Legislature passed the collection of development regulations known as Growing Smarter in the late '90s, it was hailed by supporters as a comprehensive reform that would lead to better planning for the future.

But in Oro Valley, a group of citizens say the end result is the weakening of a growth plan developed through a public process in the mid-'90s.

Growth has always been a volatile issue in the rapidly growing suburb of 38,000 people north of Tucson.

In 1996, after a couple of years of meetings and negotiations, the town council approved a general plan to guide future development.

But that plan didn't cover elements such as water resources and cost-of-development studies as required by the state's Growing Smarter regulations, so town officials developed a new general plan that that's up for voter approval in an all-mail election that began earlier this month and ends Nov. 4.

Oro Valley Mayor Paul Loomis, who helped draft the '96 plan before he won a council seat, says the old plan "is very good, but the new plan is better. I think the differences between the two are very, very small."

But critics say the new plan undoes many of the land-use restrictions of the old plan, with more than 20 up-zonings of properties that are now labeled low density.

"The plan as it stands has got some critical flaws that need to be corrected before it can be ratified," says Oro Valley resident Carl A. Kuehn, 49, a geologist who chairs OVBeyond2004, a political committee opposed to the plan.

Kuehn complains seven of the proposed changes weren't reviewed by the plan's public steering committee, but instead breezed through the town's planning and zoning commission and went straight to mayor and council for approval.

Since the steering committee made its recommendations, says Kuehn, "the language and the policy has been watered down and the land-use element has been changed significantly. Politics entered the equation in the final step, and politics have no place in planning."

Loomis says most of those increases are along major streets where the town should have a higher density or commercial zonings to serve the estimated 53,000 people who will live in Oro Valley by 2020.

"Yes, there are corners that are currently low density ... that are going to be major and minor intersections," Loomis says. "So some of these sites will no longer fit a rural-type use 20 years from now, because they'll be so close to higher-density development."

Kuehn says that's true of some of the changes, but other areas are now undeveloped desert, such as a large parcel of state land on the community's northern edge. "It's a huge chunk of land," he says. "It goes from Sun City all the way up to Catalina and the Pinal County line."

Kuehn, who has laid out many of his objections on a Web site, www.ovbeyond2004.org, also frets that the plan is riddled with imprecise language that fails to protect open space, archaeological sites and wildlife habitats. He's also concerned that future down-zonings would require a supermajority of council members, while increases in density require a simple majority.

If the plan fails, then the '96 plan remains in effect until town officials present a new one to voters that includes the elements required by Growing Smarter. Town officials warn that repeating the effort will cost a significant amount of money, but Kuehn says the basics of the plan are sound, as long as some of the elements are revised.

"The town is trying to say if we vote it down, it's going to cost a lot of money," Kuehn. "That money has been well invested. You don't need to start from scratch. You just need to fix the small critical flaws and resubmit a revised plan in 2004."

More by Jim Nintzel

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