B y B u t c h L e s t e r
THE BENIGN GHOSTS of Edward Abbey and the Tucson Eco-Raiders seemed to hover in the background as a handful of protesters carrying banners and signs that said: "Developers Go Build in Hell!" faced off about 1,000 construction workers outside Monday's special meeting of the Pima County Board of Supervisors.
The meeting at the Tucson Convention Center was canceled after it became clear the crowd was too large even for the larger meeting hall that had been chosen after the first meeting was canceled two weeks ago for the same reason. Both meetings were scheduled to deal with a proposal for development impact fees. The impact fees are being proposed by northwest side homeowners, who believe developers are not paying their fair share of infrastructure costs. The burden on Tucson taxpayers, they say, is even greater because of an historic imbalance in state funds which favors Phoenix and Maricopa County.
The ad hoc group Developers Go Build in Hell was only one of several organizations present to make the case for slowing development in Tucson--or at least improving the way it's done. Even though environmental activists were outnumbered 100 to one by construction workers who were fed--and, some alleged, paid to attend Monday's meeting--by members of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association, the activists were optimistic that the meeting's composition didn't reflect the sentiment of most Tucsonans.
"We've reached critical mass in Tucson," said one protest organizer. "The developers carry the seeds of their own destruction. They've brought in all these people from places like California, who are tough and sophisticated on development issues. It doesn't take long for them to realize the desert is getting chewed up. And that's the quality of life they came here for."
The loosely knit group of protesters was formed after a Tucson Weekly Skinny item described how developers had packed a meeting two weeks ago, causing its cancellation after citizen groups and environmentalists were excluded because they couldn't get in the room. Many of the groups were from the northwest side, where homeowners' associations have been pushing the concept of impact fees to make developers pay for some of the infrastructure required by the increased population they bring to the Tucson area. Some are calling for a moratorium on development on the northwest side if the impact fees don't go through.
But members of the group which is calling itself Developers Go Build in Hell say that's not enough. They're calling for a year-long moratorium on all building in the Tucson Basin, which they define as the entire Santa Cruz watershed from Nogales to Marana. They want a committee of citizen activists and environmentalists to use the year to come up with an alternative master plan. The citizen's master plan will emphasize protection of biodiversity, urban infill, passage of native plant protection ordinances, and preservation of community values.
"The developers hijacked the comprehensive planning process, so it's time to start over," said protester Nancy Zierenberg. "We aren't against jobs, but this is a lose-lose situation. We have higher priced homes that are out of range of most Tucsonans and we're losing the desert with this rape-and-scrape style of development."
Protest organizers also believe the process of coming up with an environmental alternative to the current master plan will help create a unified force to check development. Many veterans in the fight, including Sierra Club member Gayle Hartmann, have dropped back to piecemeal efforts, such as the current open-space bond proposal, because of their disappointment with the comprehensive plan created by the county three years ago. Even in the watered-down form that was adopted in 1992, the plan often is not followed.
"In the past two years they've gotten exceptions to the plan almost two-thirds of the time," Zierenberg said.
Zierenberg said the current comprehensive plan failed to include some bottom line provisions, including a requirement that developers of large tracts leave aside natural open space, transfer fees that would be levied on speculators, and native plant ordinances that require protection of species where they're growing, instead of giving developers the option of moving them.
"The Sonoran Desert isn't just anyplace," Zierenberg said. "We've got the equivalent here of the Sistine Chapel or the Taj Mahal. Ironically, we've got some of the most benighted and backward regulation of anywhere in the country."
Zierenberg and the other protesters say the system clearly doesn't work. To bypass elected officials, who they say have been ineffective at keeping up with development pressures, they're calling for a referendum that will allow voters to decide among an environmentalist master plan, the current comprehensive plan, or an amalgam of the two to be designed by a consensus committee.
"The country is moving toward more direct democracy," Zierenberg said. "There's a good reason for that--the elected bodies are just atrophied. We know our proposals are way out at the far end of the spectrum, but you'd be amazed at how many people really would like this to happen. Being so-called practical and making compromises has been a disaster for this town. It's time to open out the terms of the debate."
Zierenberg said the group would be urging mainstream environmentalists and citizens groups to form an umbrella group that could address development issues on a watershed basis. Developers Go Build in Hell will remain the shock troops for the slow-growth movement, Zierenberg said. However, the group will stick to legal activities, rather than the monkeywrenching used by the Eco-Raiders who vandalized edge development in the early '70s and provided some of the inspiration for Tucson author Edward Abbey's famous book The Monkey Wrench Gang.
"But we do see the aptness of Ed Abbey's contention that, 'Growth is the ideology of the cancer cell,' " Zierenberg said.
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