Tucson's Holy War

A Brief History Of The City's Crusade For More Turf.

By Dave Devine and Molly McKasson

A STRONG BELIEF in the necessity for annexation has been a religious tenet in Tucson for decades. Advocates just seem to take it on faith that annexation is the only hope of salvation for this city. The alternative, they warn, is a suburban-ringed urban ghetto where poor residents bear the brunt of the cost for metropolitan growth.

Those who reject this doctrine are considered heretics. True believers are adamant that without annexation there can be no financial or social equity in Tucson--end of discussion.

But today there's a growing protest movement fighting annexation on many fronts. The intense zeal on both sides is culminating in a sort of end-of-the-century holy war.

Feature The founding fathers thought small back in 1877, when they incorporated a mere two square miles as the City of Tucson. It wasn't until 1953 that the Old Pueblo exceeded 10 square miles. The '50s, however, were a period of rapid growth. Led by gung-ho Mayor Don Hummel, Tucson encompassed 70 square miles by early 1960.

Hummel's theology held that annexation was a choice between Tucson as a vital, growing community, or some stagnant backwater. Among the advantages to expansion he cited, according to a 1956 article in The Arizona Daily Star, were that "...TV shows are given cities on a population basis, advertising rates are affected, and city population is considered when attempts are made to encourage industry to come in."

The city's aggressive attitude toward annexation created many enemies. The opponents resented being told what was going to happen to them; they objected to higher property tax rates; they wanted to maintain their "rural" lifestyles. But they had little choice in the matter, since annexations were relatively easy to accomplish. Despite that, opposition was fierce enough that Hummel, in jest, once literally donned crusader's armor to attend an annexation meeting.

Since those days, many Pima County residents have been hauled into the city limits against their will. But their cries of objection did not stop the evangelists of annexation from spreading the faith. City growth proponents denounced their opponents as mean-spirited, power-hungry, and just plain stupid.

More than two dozen annexations during the 1960s added less than 10 square miles to the city. In the next decade, however, with Lew Murphy as mayor and Joel Valdez as city manager, Tucson grew by almost 20 square miles in 40 separate annexations.

But competition was on the horizon: The 1970s also saw the incorporation of both Marana and Oro Valley. In 1974, after years of effort by Tucson and Pima County officials to block the move, Oro Valley residents formed a city, saying they wanted to control their own destiny.

Marana residents incorporated three years later, in part to protect their agricultural heritage from being literally swallowed up by Tucson Water as it bought and retired from production large tracts of farm land.

MURPHY SAID RECENTLY, "The city is the loser when it can't tax the unincorporated area, and the tax base is restricted...The City of Tucson resident is without a doubt subsidizing the lifestyle of the unincorporated residents."

Valdez agrees. "Without annexation," he maintains, "the pot doesn't get any bigger...it's an equity issue...Why do poor people who live along the Santa Cruz have to pay property taxes so that county residents on the eastside can use a fancy city park and facility?"

True believers think those non-city residents who call themselves "Tucsonans" are barbarians in this religious struggle. Many who live in the unincorporated metro-area come here to escape the hassles of urban life. But at 5 p.m., when they're ready to leave their jobs in the city, they demand every light on Grant Road be synchronized to speed them back to their Ranchita Desierta just over the city line.

Tom Volgy, who served as both a Tucson city councilman and as mayor during the 1980s, recalls, "Annexation was a big issue for me because people outside the city work, play, use all the facilities, but don't provide the resources city residents do...If we're to build a real community, these problems don't stop at the border of the city...This is an issue about mutual obligation, about where we want to go and why.

But, he adds, "I frankly don't like annexation. It's a distant second choice to metropolitan government...Annexation is not a good tool. It is piecemeal and blunt."

But the idea of one consolidated government for metropolitan Tucson quickly faded when Volgy left office. Even attempts at consolidation of services were a failure. Citizen committees endorsed the idea repeatedly, but city and county governments have been unable and unwilling to do it.

Meanwhile, annexing property with people living on it has become more difficult, thanks to a change in state law pushed by non-believing Tucson-area legislators and residents. So-called "strip" annexations were also outlawed.

Also during the 1980s, while annexation proponents continually emphasized the need for economic equity, the city government kept providing county residents with more services--even if they didn't want to be annexed. Udall Park, with its extensive recreation center, was built on the eastern edge of town, where many of its users would not be city residents.

True believers constantly cite the increase in state-shared revenue to the city, now about $200 a person, as a reason to annex. Even though no one knows how much it costs to provide city services to the hypothetical $200 person, the loyal congregation take it on faith that it's a good deal.

BECAUSE OF THE changes in state law, among other factors, by the end of the 1980s the pace of Tucson's growth had slowed considerably. Despite that, the decade had seen three large annexations, making 1990 Tucson a city of 156 square miles.

By then city annexation officials were focusing on fewer areas, most of which were partially developed residential subdivisions. They attempted nine annexations between 1990 and 1993, succeeded at eight of them, and brought 6,300 people and six square miles into the city.

Then Michael Brown was appointed city manager.

In the fall of 1993 he realized the City Council thought re-energizing the annexation movement was important. Brown created Project Foresight to focus on the issue.

Annexation officials were ordered to examine three financially rich areas. Each potential target could generate big revenue returns in sales and other taxes while not requiring vast city expenditures to provide services. Like the annexation of Tucson Mall a decade earlier, these three areas could provide a substantial profit for the city.

One target area, the northwest commercial corridor along Interstate 10 south of the Cañada del Oro Wash, was also coveted by Marana. While this area is obviously contiguous with City of Tucson infrastructure--not Marana's--in this battle the little town proved it could beat its big neighbor in the annexation game.

Another lucrative annexation was La Paloma Resort. The city had to somehow snake up the foothills, taking in an adamantly opposed majority of residents to get to the resort. Brown said this area "would've been better to do back in the '70s...It was clear these folks wanted the large lots more isolated in the foothills...we needed to accommodate them." But opposition proved overwhelming, and city officials, at least temporarily, abandoned their efforts.

Finally, there was the commercial/ industrial Palo Verde Corridor on the south side of town. The city pushed through the state Legislature a temporary law which made annexing the area much easier. The change meant that one agreeable large property owner alone--in this instance Tucson Electric Power Company--could ensure the annexation's success. That infuriated hundreds of nearby small-business and property owners who would be affected.

Many of the business owners abhorred the thought of city fire and building inspectors breathing down their throats, not to mention the regulatory fees annexation would mean. They've tried numerous legal maneuvers to stop the annexation. The issue is still unresolved, and an August court date has been set to settle the fight.

Palo Verde was another in a string of annexation cases where the city was accused of bullying people. But Joel Valdez argues that even if "the Apostles were sitting on the (city) council, there would still be big opposition to annexation."

WITH PROGRESS ON its three potential cash cows stymied, Project Foresight began grabbing almost any potential annexation. In the last three years, it has succeeded in 21 cases, but failed in 12 others. More than 30 square miles have been annexed into the city, bringing the total to 193. These new areas include nearly 6,000 people--although 3,800 are inmates at two prisons on south Wilmot Road.

Valdez succinctly summarizes this current doctrine: "Annexing dirt is good. You can better manage the growth in relation to the current city."

The rebirth of the "annex everything" philosophy under Tucson's current city council majority is apparent from the results: Two-thirds of the annexations under Project Foresight have been vacant land, and only two annexations included economically attractive commercial property.

Current trends actually have a long history. For years, annexation has been the primary means by which city officials planned for growth. But they were plans based on quantity, not quality. And while politicians concentrated on the new, the developing, the growing, they often put off maintaining the older parts of town.

Not surprisingly, older parts of Tucson now have hugely expensive infrastructure needs which must be addressed. And the faithful still see annexation as one way to pay that bill--and no proof it will work is required.

WHILE TUCSON IS annexing everything in sight, Marana has pursued a somewhat different path. After expanding to nearly 70 square miles with only a few thousand residents, the community chose, according to Town Manager Hurvie Davis, to "not annex a lot of vacant land unless development was imminent. Instead, we looked at annexing a tax base. You can't provide services without a tax base."

Meanwhile, the muddle created by Tucson's ill-fated Palo Verde annexation has expanded far beyond its borders. Ted Poelstra, a leader in the effort to stop that annexation, says he felt "personally violated" by the city's effort. He lobbied hard for the new state legislation that nullifies for two years Tucson's ability to stop any incorporation within six miles of its limits. The law, Poelstra believes, will counter what he calls Tucson's "anti-new city," bias, which, in his opinion, has cost Pima County residents tens of millions of dollars in state shared revenues.

True believers in annexation see Poelstra and others like him as infidels. The city will fight the law in court.

"The son-of-a-bitch who got the new annexation law passed ought to be taken out into the woods and shot for what he did," says former mayor Lew Murphy. "That law is a travesty."

Poelstra thinks "contract" cities, communities that would collect taxes but contract out for most services, is the direction urban growth should take in Pima County. A number of areas are now considering this possibility, including the much-publicized Casas Adobes community on the northwest side, as well as the foothills. But former city manager Michael Brown warns that if there is a foothills city, "it will become the economic force, and Tucson will be an afterthought."

The belief that there's some type of social obligation by those living outside the city to help pay for services provided by Tucson doesn't make sense to Poelstra.

"Where would you draw the line for other cities?" he asks. "Would Tucson absorb Marana? Where does that thinking end, when the Tucson city limits reach Nogales?"

Tucson Mayor George Miller fervently disagrees. He complains people living outside the city use Tucson services without paying their fair share. If the wealthy live outside the city and poor people live inside it, Miller warns, Tucson will choke economically. If the core of the community is hurting, Miller argues, everyone in the metropolitan area will be hurt.

Of course, it could also be argued Tucson's large outlay of resources for newly annexed areas is also hurting the poor.

Marana's Davis doesn't think a poor Tucson ringed by wealthier communities is necessarily the only scenario. He cites Portland and San Diego as examples of vibrant cities which have extensive suburbs.

A foothills opponent of past Tucson annexation attempts, Lera Gates believes her neighbors contribute greatly to Tucson proper. But she adds the financial benefits of coming into the city just aren't compelling for the individual property owner. She says that if there were a way to get assurances on future rezonings to prevent the loss of the green belt the foothills provide, annexation by Tucson might be possible.

Some city residents who oppose annexation are concentrating on trying to accomplish positive alternatives. They stress the need for neighborhood preservation, reinvestment in the established community, and more focus on existing assets as well as problems.

When it comes to city government, however, the "annex or die" philosophy continues to dominate official actions.

While Poelstra talks of "contract" cities, John Jones, current director of the city's annexation efforts, says there's a need for "elastic" cities. He points to the rings of decay surrounding eastern and midwestern cities, arguing communities that grow, like Phoenix, can combat that.

Despite the new incorporation law, Jones says the city will continue to annex. Officials are currently looking at eight small areas along River Road, from Campbell Avenue to Camino Real. The city can also go east to the Saguaro National Park, as well as attempt to annex the old IBM plant, where the Arizona International Campus of the UA is housed--although how annexing a state entity like the University would benefit muncipal taxpayers is never discussed.

Jones says only a handful of potential annexations weren't pursued by Project Foresight because they didn't meet the city council requirement that they pay for themselves over a five-year period. But he admits no cost/benefit analysis has ever been done on the city's past annexation efforts.

A REVIEW OF economic predictions about recent vacant-land annexations revels most of them have been wildly optimistic. In seven cases where specific projections were made about the pace of development, the estimates were far off in six. In one, the city council was told an undeveloped parcel on the west side would have 167 homes on it by this year. Jackrabbits and coyotes remain its only occupants.

The inaccurate economic predictions should cause concern about the reliability of the financial benefits of annexation. The per-unit cost of providing city services to two homes, compared to 200, has to be greater, especially in a sparsely developed subdivision. The slow or almost non-existent rate of development in newly annexed areas at the edge of the city means costly services such as paramedic coverage, police surveillance and garbage collection will all be stretched to cover mostly vacant land.

True believers claim these vacant residential parcels not only will pay for themselves, but will eventually show a profit. So the city will waive fees and provide expensive services to these newly annexed outlying areas, especially in the sparsely populated southeast side town where most of them are.

In the future, while continuing to pick away at small annexations, the city will also try to direct new growth to the southeast. The annexation of vast tracts of vacant land in that direction, combined with the decision to install costly municipal facilities at Rita Ranch, and the city's active financial participation in the far-eastside Civano "solar village" project, have sent a clear message.

If the city can't annex the foothills and other areas, the faithful believe, Tucson will have to do what it can to encourage new growth inside the expanding city limits. If that means more financial subsidies for sprawl developments, that's a sacrifice they say current Tucson residents will have to make.

At the same time, the city continues to ignore steps it could take to decrease the financial loss caused by non-residents' enjoying city services. It could impose a dual system of payment at places like the Udall Center, or on its golf courses, that favors city residents--but it won't. In fact, city officials will be blocked from doing this at Udall under the terms of the recently passed county parks bond package.

The city could also aggressively oppose Pima County's provision of municipal-type services to residents of unincorporated Tucson--but, again, it won't. Even though some of the recently passed county bond issues were obviously not in the long-term financial interest of city residents, only one member of the city council publicly came out against them.

Ironically enough, while true believers in the economic necessity of annexation continue to preach the gospel, city expansion is occurring along with increasing poverty, not wealth. "Annex or die" advocates blame those uncooperative people in the foothills, that bothersome Ted Poelstra, and the Pima County Board of Supervisors. Meanwhile, the Tucson City Council continues to subsidize development at the city's periphery.

Reinvestment in the community, not annexation of more vacant land, is by far the city's best strategy for competing with not only Albuquerque and Austin, but also Marana and Oro Valley. A growing number of local residents believe the city should focus its energy and resources on neighborhood preservation and creating higher-paying jobs, and stop annexing undeveloped property. They want help with early prevention of family and youth crises, and creation of a clean and efficient transportation system--not more subsidies for subdivisions on the edge of town. If that were to happen, the critics say, we might not just survive, but thrive as a cultural, economic and artistic haven.

"Great necessities call out great virtues," Abigail Adams once said. Tucsonans would do well to become virtuous, not religious, in their views toward annexation and the future of their community nestled in the incomparable Sonoran desert. It's time to stop calling the suburbs soulless, and instead get to work preserving and enhancing Tucson's soul. TW

Photos by Sean Justice and Desiree A. Rios

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