Send In The Clowns

For The First Time In 25 Years, A Major Pima County Developer Gets A Pie In The Kisser.

By Emil Franzi

LAST WEEK, WHEN The Pima County Board of Supervisors rejected, 4-1, Fairfield Homes' proposed rezoning for 6,100 homes, two more golf courses and 1,000 commercial acres on 10 square miles south of Green Valley, it wasn't a particularly surprising event, even for this growth-happy burg: The Canoa project was the most ineptly handled major rezoning case in modern Pima County history.

Usually big zoning cases like this one--the first major plan to be rejected by the Board of Supervisors in a quarter-century--pit neighbors and environmentalists against the developer and Growth Lobby support groups. But Fairfield's brilliant strategy managed to spark opposition from the mines, the railroad, Farmer's Investment, the Tohono O'odham Nation and the astronomy industry.

The main concern of the big-business interests, as well as many local inhabitants (particularly in the surrounding area) was water. The pro-growth state Department of Water Resources gave Fairfield the authority to pump whatever groundwater it needed for Canoa, which made all the other special interests very nervous. It seems some people have come to their senses and realized Pima County is a desert. Amazing.

Currents At the big showdown on Tuesday, January 12, in the old Sahuarita High School auditorium, the usual Growth Lobby Astroturf was present among the 1,000-plus spectators and roughly 200 speakers, who kept the meeting rolling until after 11 p.m. We heard the usual crap from the Chamber of Commerce that building more houses will mean more income for local government--never mind the overwhelming evidence that increased services will more than eat up new revenues. And we heard the (yawn) usual dire predictions from the real-estate and construction folks that not passing this plan would plunge the area into economic depression.

Hey, guys: Nobody buys that bullshit anymore, including most of you. Get real.

What added to the opponents' wide margin in attendance was a group of astronomers and their supporters, who reacted to Fairfield's heavy-handed legal threats, intended to intimidate those who had the audacity to point out the impact of light pollution on the nearby Mount Hopkins Observatory.

The astronomers noted that Mount Hopkins is one of the best observatories in the world for ground-based stargazing and discussed astronomy's economic benefits to the community--from the high-paying jobs it generates in the development of complex and expensive equipment like mirrors and other high-tech components, to the large number of visitors and scientific researchers attracted here, as well as millions in grant money that steadily flows our way. Fairfield's lame response: They'd turn off all the really bright lights at 10 p.m.

The trained seals traditionally hauled out to chant the usual mantra, "Construction feeds my family," found astronomers flinging back the same message: "Dark skies feed many others."

Fairfield's decision to threaten astronomers with lawsuits was the ultimate bad call in a cavalcade of poor judgment; it seemed almost as if they were searching for new groups to offend.

BUT FAIRFIELD'S BASIC problem resulted from their simple inability to read the Board of Supervisors.

Two members were easy. Both Democrat Raul Grijalva and Republican Ray Carroll had made it clear they were opposed. That meant the proponents needed all three of the remaining members.

They had one--Republican Mike Boyd, despite his many comments to the contrary. They imagined they had two more: Democrats Dan Eckstrom and Sharon Bronson. The local media helped feed that misconception. Before the big meeting, The Arizona Daily Star headlined one crucial story, "Bronson Holds Key." The assumption was that Eckstrom was in Fairfield's pocket because the developer had hired an old friend, Frank Thomson, as a lead planner.

Eckstrom, unlike some other pols we know, has never pretended to be an environmentalist. He often votes with development interests. But he doesn't declare how he'll vote; nor does he discuss the issue with anyone beforehand, so nobody ever knows what he'll do. And he's been known to vote against developers. Thus the Fairfield gang's miscalculation here was both arrogant and stupid.

Bronson was also uncommitted. While it was hard to count her as firmly opposed to the development before the meeting, it was clear folly to expect her to abandon her basic political views--as well as the constituency that elected her--to go down the well for Canoa. Nick the Greek would've given heavy odds against it.

Perhaps Fairfield should've hired old Nick as a consultant, since nobody quite understood why they persisted in going through with the public hearing and getting clobbered--it was obvious to anybody with a pulse that Fairfield's plan was doomed.

The answer is simple: Some of Fairfield's ace bigshots actually believed they had three votes. They were that out of it.

In fact, they were so out of it that they cashed personal chits with well-respected Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who did them a big favor by publicly taking a pro-rezoning stand, to no avail. They were so out of it that they privately explained their threatened suit against the Smithsonian was merely a way "to get their attention." They were so out of it that they actually expected Eckstrom to second Boyd's last-minute rescue attempt, which would have accepted portions of the plan. They were so out of it they failed to grasp that astronomy is more economically relevant to this community than they are.

It was a big win for restrained-growth advocates, highlighting once again the community's paradigm shift on the growth issue. Either that, or spotlighting the Growth Lobby's increasing political ineptitude. Take your pick. TW

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