The Town Too Tough To Grow

TORTOLITA BECAME A town on September 2, 1997, when the Pima County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to approve the incorporation after Pima County Recorder Ann Rodriguez certified that 72 percent of the registered voters living in the area had signed petitions in favor of the town's creation.

Feature State law sets out two methods to incorporate, both by petition. If 10 percent of the registered voters sign on the dotted line, there's an election, as we'll see in November in Casas Adobes and the Catalina Foothills. But if two-thirds of the voters sign petitions, their community automatically becomes a town. Tortolita took the hard way.

When was the last time you heard of 72 percent of anybody favoring anything--and then signing a petition to support it? Knock off the sludge everybody knows remains on the voter rolls, and that 72 percent pushes 90 percent. We could've gotten more if needed from folks on vacation or by camping on some more doorsteps. Tortolita, in fact, is the only town in Arizona history to incorporate by petition.

The Steering Committee, consisting of anybody who came to the meetings, ended up with 37 people. Fifty-six others helped as petition passers. More than 100 people made financial contributions. When needed, as when we decided to pack the Oro Valley Council meeting to protest that town's attempts to annex us apart, we could turn out over 300 folks on short notice--about 20 percent of our adult population. The first town council was chosen by 250 people attending a town meeting--held on three day's notice on the evening of Labor Day--to review 15 candidates, seven of whom were elected and forwarded to the Board of Supervisors for ratification. That's a higher turnout than Tucson got in the city primary.

Politicians love to prattle about the virtues of citizen participation, which usually means six staffers, four suits and a few shills sitting in a government building eating donuts at taxpayer expense and representing no one. In Tortolita citizen participation is so damn authentic that if Frank Capra were still around, he'd make a movie with Jimmy Stewart playing Lan Lester.

LESTER WAS ELECTED to the town council by acclamation and a standing ovation. No one person did more to create this town and everybody here knows it. He and his wife Judy spent six months of their lives working on a vision and got hundreds of people to back it. They're continuing their efforts by using an office in their home as a temporary town hall, with Judy Lester serving as a volunteer, unpaid town clerk. Tortolita may be unique in one other way: It's the only town I know where almost everybody actually likes the mayor.

Lester was far from alone. Kathy Dhyr and Bernie Zabel turned over their home for two months as petition headquarters and lived with strangers (who are now new friends) popping up at all hours with petitions in their hands. The champion petition passers were Lou and Robyn Benson, who knocked out 178 sigs by themselves--folks who drove Thornydale and La Cholla saw them regularly parked on street corners. And mention must be made of Robert Hassan, who was handed a list to troubleshoot--in alphabetical order--and brought back a full petition--in the same alphabetical order. The new flooring in our living room waited from July 4 to Labor Day for installation as my wife Kathy, the former Pima County voter registrar, meticulously checked every petition, resulting in a final count that differed from the official one by exactly four signatures. There were others, too numerous to mention, whose contributions where similarly phenomenal. Suffice that this was a textbook case of civic responsibility.

WE WEREN'T EXACTLY concerned with many of those high-priced services everybody else is talking about in other incorporations because we don't get much of anything now. We pay for our own trash and fire, most of us have our own wells and septic tanks (which works fine on large lots), and we don't need streetlights and sidewalks on the many dirt roads we're quite happy to drive. Like several similar towns in California without commercial uses, we can get along just fine on revenue-sharing money even if Pima County does gouge us a little. We've already computed we get less than our assessed valuation pays for--which, for the record, is larger than Sahuarita and South Tucson combined.

At the town election, I held in my hand a ballot that had more good candidates listed than I could vote for. And the next morning most of the losers came to the Pima County Board meeting to watch the winners sworn in. Try that one anywhere else.

Much of this stems from Tortolitans' many years of participation in several home-owner groups and the Northwest Coalition for Responsible Development, chaired by Lester. A lot of people got to know each other through years of banding together for a variety of projects and fights against bad development.

A lot of people are saying that certain incorporations are motivated by questionable forces. Ours was motivated by a simple desire to preserve lifestyles, whether it's the folks in Cholla Air Park who want to keep flying their planes, family members in a single-wide who want to keep riding their horses, or the retirees who like watching wildlife and wondrous, unobstructed sunsets. That can only be done by leaving saguaros and ironwoods alone and letting wildlife have a sanctuary somewhere between all those tacky roofs in Marana and Oro Valley. Preservation of lifestyle means preservation of the Sonoran Desert.

WE'VE BEEN SUED by just about everybody and it isn't over yet. We're the Growth Lobby's worst nightmare--a bunch of real people in charge of the zoning and permitting on 22 square miles of reasonably pristine desert who plan to keep it that way. Every suit from here to Hong Kong is going bonkers and every lawyer who ever had a land speculator client is getting rich figuring new ways to try to screw us over. Unfortunately for them, so far they've been outnumbered by Tortolita Town Attorney Bill Risner.

Politically, Tortolita is a crazy mix of hard righties, hard lefties, and even a few militant moderates. You can tell by the first council--four Republicans, two Democrats and a Libertarian, with a Democrat placing as first alternate. Trust me, nobody cared.

Councilwoman Kathleen Franzi, who's not exactly a liberal, made the motion to appoint the town's most notable left-winger, Lou Benson, to the post of Town Marshall. It carried unanimously. So far, Benson's main job has been policing the town's rights of way for illegally posted signs and replacing the Tortolita signs that have been continually defaced and broken by some anonymous scumbag. Like the Lesters, Benson serves without pay.

Oro Valley and Marana both did us a big favor by proposing fast-track annexations for the sole purpose of cutting us into three pieces to negate our ability to be a town. All that did was make our people work harder and convince a couple hundred more folks that we weren't blowing smoke when we asked them to support us or get annexed by Caddyshack or Dogpatch. Thanks, turkeys--you gave us the margin.

We're hardly no-growthers. We hope our growth accelerates and we build out the town with more people who think and live like we do. As long as they do it the way we did, we'll be delighted to welcome them.

Tortolita could handle another 10,000 people some day--but not the 150,000 you'll find in that putrid document called the Pima County Comprehensive Plan. Remember that next time somebody extols the virtues of "having a regional plan." We do, and it sucks.

Lawyers for our opposition are trying to make the case that we can't be a town because we don't fit the definition of a "community." Pardon us, but we think we just proved we're one of the few places left that really is one.

Their argument, as voiced by their lap-dogs at Inside Tucson Business, suggests that Tortolita is too sparsely populated to be considered an "urban area," which is not supposed to contain things like agriculture. Guess what--we don't have any agriculture. That's all next door in annexation-happy Marana, which has less density than we do. And in Oro Valley, where developers are still taking big tax breaks for running cows on vacant land in places like Honey Bee Canyon.

THE COMPREHENSIVE PLAN isn't the only problem in these parts. The majority of the Amphitheater School District governing board reeks with corruption, arrogance, conflicts of interest and blatant stonewalling. It wasn't the Tucson Weekly that gave it the 1996 Brick Wall award for failure to produce public information, it was the Arizona Press Club.

As The Weekly's Jim Nintzel wrote last year, obvious conflicts of interest abound where a school board picks a political crony as its sole real estate agent and allows him to get paid by the seller on a commission that gets bigger as the price of the land grows. The 73-acre parcel agent Bill Arnold picked for a high school site--at four times the land's assessed value--is at the district's border with the Marana School District. It's a flood-prone parcel covered with prime wildlife habitat, ideal for the now-famous pygmy owl, which Tortolitans have adopted as their official town bird.

The Amphi School Board's pygmy owl argument--that this is a case of "owls vs. kids"--is a rationalization for the board's failure to check the environmental impact of building a school on the site. (But the lack of environmental studies shouldn't be surprising, since the board also didn't even have the land appraised.) Last month, the board members told a packed--and hostile--public hearing that there probably aren't any pygmy owls on the property, and besides, who cares? There are plenty of them left in Mexico. That's an interesting interpretation of the Endangered Species Act by Amphi Board member Gary Woodard, who ought to know better. Yeah, and you can still see a bald eagle at the Desert Museum.

Woodard's argument exposes the total environmental callousness of the Amphi Board and other bulldoze-at-any-cost folks. You destroy endangered species by destroying their habitat--it doesn't matter if there are any owls there now. The three washes running through the property are where they like to live. Destroy them and they have fewer places to go.

The school site was picked partly based on future development, and Amphi bought it before Tortolita was incorporated. Marana officials recently annexed--after publicly promising they'd wait--1,200 acres, including a 309-acre parcel owned by Forest City Development of Cleveland. Forest City originally had this parcel zoned for a shopping center, but has since modified it for--what else?--high-density housing. That annexation is on shaky ground, as Tortolita has filed suit citing specific legal problems, not limited to the fact that the Marana Council passed a tabled ordinance on the consent agenda. The lawsuit isn't the only problem besetting the annexation--enough signatures were gathered on referendum petitions from Marana residents to place this annexation on the ballot in their spring election. There are some real people in Dogpatch who are tired of the town's reputation.

Marana also covets 900 acres of state-trust land next door, where more blading and grading is planned. Forest City, which has a "planning permit" from the State of Arizona for this parcel, is looking forward to acquiring it--on their time frame--from the State of Arizona, so they can do another massive development. All the company will need is a rezoning. While this Board of Supes probably wouldn't grant the rezoning, Marana most likely would.

But as things have shaken out, that 900 acres now just happens to be in Tortolita, where the odds of rezoning are lower than a pygmy owl's life expectancy at an Amphi School Board meeting.

All of which gives you some insight into the reasons attorney Si Schorr, of the law firm Lewis and Roca, which represents Forest City, will throw as many lawsuits as he can at Tortolita to destroy us. He's actually arguing that Forest City will be injured by not making a profit on land they have yet to acquire! And Inside Tucson Business is parroting this bullshit by attacking great big nasty Tortolita for picking on a poor little Cleveland mega-developer.

The state land department is convinced it'll get more money for land planned for high-density usage, and the bureaucrats have rigged the sale process accordingly. If that were true, several acres in crowded south-central L.A. ought to worth more than similar dirt in Beverly Hills--or that Bangladesh should have higher real estate prices than Switzerland.

The irony in all this stems from the state constitutional mandate to sell land at the highest price to support education--a policy that fails to take into account that selling the land to high-density developers dumps thousands of kids into already overcrowded local schools with insufficient tax revenue to cover their cost. This is consistently proved by the fact that many school districts are maxed out on bonds and property taxes, as Amphi is right now.

TORTOLITA IS FIGHTING several other lawsuits. One is from the folks who are trying to incorporate Casas Adobes, who are concerned about several issues that were resolved by the Board of Supervisors when they simultaneously incorporated Tortolita and placed the Casas Adobes incorporation on the November ballot. (The Casas Adobes people originally wanted to grab most of what is now Tortolita, but after a couple of meetings they decided we'd be too hard to digest. And we decided we didn't need to be part of a New Marana.) This lawsuit mainly involved the creation of "islands"--which had been done by the Casans themselves, some think as a set-up to screw Tortolita. Many aren't surprised by this sleazy move from a bunch of folks who count former Pima County Supervisor Ed Moore as their "senior advisor." They've yet to drop the lawsuit, even though its issues are moot, causing us to wonder if it's part of a grander Growth Lobby strategy to keep us in court and tap us out. We're also faced with a similar suit from Marana land owner John Kai, who just happens to be represented by Ed Moore's personal attorney, Larry Schubart.

But the major lawsuit Tortolita--and all other incorporations--faces is from the City of Tucson's appeal of the decision by Pima County Superior Court Judge Michael Alfred, who upheld the constitutionality of the 1997 law allowing incorporations within six miles of existing towns and cities. This case will be decided by the Appellate Court on October 27, and, we hope, address something the trial judge dodged--the constitutionality of the 1961 law setting up the six-mile "disenfranchisement zones" in the first place.

Pima County, which chose to vigorously oppose the city's suit after some intense lobbying by Tortolitans and others, is ably represented on this matter by attorney Tony Ching, former Solicitor General of the State of Arizona under three Attorneys General--Bruce Babbitt, Bob Corbin and Grant Woods. Ching is generally considered one of the finest constitutional lawyers in Arizona. The Town of Tortolita recently added Ching to its battery of attorneys by approving a consulting contract. We're currently the only Arizona town that has no paid staff--just lawyers.

EVERYBODY IS SERVING for free and will continue to as long as is necessary, from Town Engineer John Alexander to Town Clerk Judy Lester. The back of Lester's home is town hall, and meetings are held on Thursday nights at the Tortolita Presbyterian Church on Thornydale Road. After having seen how shabbily Amphi Schools and Marana treat citizens and their input, we decided to begin and end Tortolita Council meetings with a call to the audience.

Which is why the Growth Lobby is in for a helluva fight in its attempts to bust us up and deal us off to its running dogs in Marana and Oro Valley. Every sleazy move, every phony lawsuit, every dipshit hit from rags like Inside Tucson Business just toughens us more. We're dug in for the duration.

The only problem we have is understanding the failure by some urban environmentalists and a few others to grasp what this is all about. We can figure out why a condo-living, Beemer-driving, politically correct liberal can't understand what's happening. But Tucson officials like Councilwoman Janet Marcus, who weeps over the death of tropical rain forests and worries about the impact of Styrofoam cups, doesn't have a clue about the role of Tortolita in preserving ironwood forests. Marcus had committed to vote with Council members José Ibarra, Steve Leal and Molly McKasson to remove Tortolita from the city's lawsuit, but she took a dive after Mayor George Miller pulled her chain. Miller once again has validated the thesis that he's been nothing but a Growth Lobby stooge for his entire career. There are other supposed environmentalists, particularly in the Catalina Foothills area, who are so busy fighting that incorporation that they haven't noticed the benefits of Tortolita's to preservationists everywhere.

This is not about taxes or crime or elitism or race. It's about a bunch of folks on the northwest side who can keep about 20 square miles of ironwoods, saguaro and wildlife from being plowed up forever. And it has nothing to do with the City of Tucson. We're trying to keep away from George Miller's new best friends, Marana and Oro Valley. We've sacrificed long, and we'll continue to.

You should judge us by the enemies we've made. We're extremely proud that the Growth Lobby wants our ass--we gotta be doing something right.

To reach the Town of Tortolita, write P.O. Box 90048, 85752-0048; call (520) 544-4057; Fax 544- 2395; or Email Visit their websites at and TW

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