October 26 - November 1, 1995

Can The Canyon Be Saved?

B y  E m i l  F r a n z i

LIFE IS A series of imperfect options. That's the reality facing Oro Valley Mayor Cheryl Skalsky and the Town Council as they ponder the choices for Honeybee Canyon, a natural treasure in danger of being developed out of existence.

Environmentalists like Oro Valley resident Nancy Wright are on one side, striving for maximum preservation. Others, like former Town Council member Valerie Hoyt (recalled earlier this year) are into maximum development.

The problem began in the 1970s when a group of environmentalists supported a proposal to trade some state land in the Tortolita Mountains for what is now Catalina State Park. That was accomplished in 1974 via a county bond issue. Unfortunately, no one noticed--nor cared--that the trade put one of the county's last riparian areas in the hands of developers. That generation's environmental leaders missed the ball entirely.

Today's environmental leaders have a different attitude toward Honeybee. Unfortunately, they're a little late. The Oro Valley Town Council has already granted rezonings on most of the land surrounding the canyon. In fairness to the current council, we should note that wasn't due to their actions. And Mayor Skalsky, as a council member, opposed those rezonings when they took place. But the council must now choose between limited options.

One option: Ask the citizens of Oro Valley to support a bond election to purchase a wider buffer between the canyon and new homes. The current buffer is 300 feet to the east. On the western side, development is already far along. The bond proposal under discussion would acquire 51 acres and expand that buffer to 800 feet. Many Honeybee supporters don't think that's enough for a viable wildlife corridor. Others, like Hoyt, want "economic development" and oppose the bond proposal.

Another option is to put pressure on the developers to build lower densities. Environmentalists don't think pressure is high enough, while others find it too intense.

That was abundantly clear at a recent meeting of the town's Development Review Board, which passed a new plan for a 128-unit subdivision by a 4-2 vote and forwarded it to the council, which will vote on the issue November 1. The plan holds back 36 units on 51 acres pending the outcome of the bond election. The situation is further complicated by rival appraisals--the town's consultant says the parcel is worth $2.8 million; the owners claim $4.14 million.

The idea of paying developers not to develop land sticks in some folks' craw--both those who wish to preserve Honeybee and those who could care less. It's like paying rich farmers not to grow crops. But, imperfect option that it is, it may be the only way to save some of the canyon.

Another option might be to grant developers a Community Facilities District, allowing them to privately bond infrastructure needs. Cement heads love these; environmentalists are justifiably wary, asking, "What's in it for Oro Valley?"

A fair question. To which Skalsky--in the unusual position of being in the middle of an issue--responds with, "You could get a better development." Skalsky is aware that while the barn door wasn't completely closed on Honeybee, actions by prior councils have let a lot of horses loose and the area will be developed by somebody, someday. The council--if it had the will--could stall for a while, but the town could also lose even more long-term if the current developer sold out to someone with a schlockier plan, or a future council rolled over like prior ones.

It appears the fate of great portions of Honeybee will be in the hands of the voters of Oro Valley in March. Let's hope they do the right thing by this irreplaceable bit of nature.

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October 26 - November 1, 1995

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