For their first Tucson promotion, the developers chose to build at the glitzy Honey Bee Ridge development, where 128 homes costing up to $825,000 are being plopped 300 feet from one of this desert city's last untouched riparian areas.
Like most of its kind in southern Arizona, Honey Bee Canyon contains an on-again, off-again stream, carrying water only after heavy rains. The canyon is a relic of 19th century Tucson, where rivers and washes sheltered blue herons and orioles, and where early settlers dug small diversion channels to irrigate corn and bean fields. The pressures of growth long ago dried up most rivers like this.
But Honey Bee still lures hikers and naturalists with its willow and mesquite trees, and its rust-colored walls tower up to four stories high. Starting in the Tortolita Mountains, the canyon slices five miles through the boomtown of Oro Valley, 25 miles north of downtown Tucson.
The housing development's promotional literature plays off the landscape: "Rare it is to find such sensitive development around one of Tucson's premier, history-laden natural wonders - Honey Bee Canyon." " Panoramic mountain views "representing the Sonoran Desert at its most opulent, instill in every site a feeling of rare tranquillity." " Homebuyers went for it.
"We like land and we like privacy," " transplanted Connecticut resident Mel Goldberg said, shortly after he and his wife, Sally, bought a $775,000 home on the street last winter.
"It was the total package, the quality of the home. Every room was beautiful, and it had a view of the mountains and desert. Everything had a very nice flow."
But the response of curiosity-seekers who paid $7 apiece to tour the houses was not unanimous. Many noted the pressures these homes would put on the deer and other native wildlife that live in the canyon.
"The homes are beautiful, and they fit into the landscape," " Tucson resident Leslie Shapiro said. "If this is all they are going to build, fine. But I see sign after sign for other homes. We came here for open spaces, the beauty and the mountains. It's going to grow like Topsy here, and they need controls or they are going to ruin this place." "
But Joe and Mary Sciabarra of suburban Oro Valley said that it wasn't fair to deprive others of the chance to live in such a beautiful place.
"Where do you draw the line?" " Mary Sciabarra asked a reporter.
In Tucson, the answer to that question has always been, "Nowhere." "
Since the 1950s, suburban sprawl has spread in every direction from a decaying inner city. The sprawl started with low-cost, look-alike tract houses and neighborhoods connected by a grid-style road network. More recently, it has morphed into resort-style developments that butt up against five mountain ranges that ring the city.
Now, nearly 20 such developments are being built next to some of the area's richest public-land preserves.
Tucson is the heart of Pima County, whose population jumped from 400,000 in the early 1970s to 823,000 today. Yet at the same time, overall housing densities have dropped, as homes, fire stations, stores and roads have pushed farther into the desert.
Travel distances have skyrocketed, traffic congestion has soared, the number of lanes of pavement has increased, and wildlife populations have fallen. The bottom line: an acre of Sonoran Desert, much of it teeming with saguaro and prickly pear cacti and ironwood trees, disappears to development every two hours.
Probably no city in the West has agonized over its growth more than Tucson. Artists, writers, environmental activists and planners have signed petitions, packed public meetings, painted heart-wrenching scenes of bulldozed saguaros and penned angry broadsides against progress.
Over and over, however, this community has chosen development over preservation. Although critics have managed to stop freeways from slashing through urban neighborhoods and have protected some of the region's washes and hillsides, they have lost virtually every major zoning dispute for the last 25 years.
But today, the environmental movement is starting to make headway. A tiny endangered owl, changing demographics, and public dismay at sprawl's effects have put developers on the defensive for the first time in a generation. New ordinances are being passed, new land-protection schemes are being hatched and former allies of the city's real estate industry are now waving the banner of preservation.
The new religion of desert-saving has come too late for Tucson's immediate environs, which were rezoned from the 1950s through the early 1990s and are virtually paved. But hundreds of thousands of acres of privately owned desert remain in the remote foothills and slopes of the eastern half of Pima County. The battle lines over that still-wild land are forming.
To explain the city's distress over its disappearing desert, geologist and veteran environmentalist Doug Shakel contrasts Tucson with Phoenix. Shakel is a blunt-spoken man in his mid-50s who started leading protests against sprawl after he left the Air Force and moved to Tucson 30 years ago.
In the 1970s, he led the charge to stop a planned community from being built on the northwest edge of the Santa Catalina Mountains. In the 1980s, he fought a losing battle to stop another planned community in desert bighorn sheep country just to the south of the site of his first victory. He knows the population of Phoenix is three times larger than Tucson's, and it grows twice as fast, but he points out that protests against sprawl and growth there have been much more muted until very recently.
"The reason sprawl got way ahead up there is that they converted citrus to condos early on, and the people who moved in from New York City to Phoenix - they didn't have to tear up raw desert." "
In Phoenix, the desert is an ornament, adorning the city's urban parks. On a typically hazy day, you can't see desert from the city's core; most people have laid huge carpets of grass in their front yards.
In Tucson until very recently, the desert was the city. Lush stands of cacti, low-slung mountains and the red glow of sunsets are still the dominant sights greeting visitors as they hop off Interstate 10 in midtown. To save water, many homeowners plant cholla and prickly pear in their front yards, not bluegrass and cottonwood trees. When new subdivisions creep into surrounding foothills, the sense of loss strikes swiftly and deeply.
John Ratliff, an Arizona developer of the 1970s, once countered such concerns by saying, "Tucson sprawls because people in Tucson like to sprawl." " He got it right, since sprawl benefits the land speculator, the homebuilder and the homebuyer.
Land is cheaper at the edge of town than inside it, because both speculators and homebuyers can often avoid paying for the roads, water lines and police stations needed for new homes. Taxpayers typically have to pay those costs, more often than not after the subdivisions are built and the existing schools and roads are jammed.
Sprawl is also alluring to refugees who suffer from urban stress. Traffic at the edge of an oozing city is sparser - at least at first. Crime is lower, the air is cleaner. Housing lots are larger, offering elbow room for gardens, horses and dogs.
"There's a two-sentence law of sprawl," " said David Taylor, a city planner who has charted Tucson's growth for well over a decade: "The land is cheaper at the edge. The profit is in the dirt. Why do builders build at the edge? Duh. So where do customers buy their houses? At the edge." "
But Tucson's march to the edge wouldn't have happened if its politicians hadn't let it happen. It took 25 years of land swaps, zoning changes, plan approvals and an annexation, to turn the Street of Dreams, for instance, into a developer's reality. It only takes three votes from the five-member county board of supervisors to replace saguaro cacti with golf courses, hotels, shopping centers and thousands of homes.
The real estate industry has triumphed with arguments that their projects balance nature with progress, and that, above all, growth is inevitable. More recently, developers have pushed for what they call "master-planned communities," in which they furnish land for schools and donate open space, parks and roads to the government. They've contrasted their mega-communities with "wildcat subdivisions," " unregulated, low-density developments now spreading into rural areas without paved streets, sidewalks or city utilities.
They also remind anyone who is willing to listen that these projects match the long-term visions that city and county planners drew up in land-use plans. The plans were, after all, geared to accommodate growth, and rezoning, as veteran planning consultant Frank Thomson says, is what planning is all about.
Today, county planners estimate that enough land has been rezoned in the metro area to accommodate more than twice the 400,000 newcomers they expect in the next 25 years.
Pima County's population is expected to top 1 million by 2009. Statewide, growth promises a 2020 population of 7.7 million.
Nevertheless, the county is considering a zoning change to add another 15,000 people, not to the heart of Tucson, where "infill" has long been planned, but to a satellite community 30 miles south of downtown Tucson. Largely because of its location, the Canoa Ranch project has sparked the broadest-based protest against any big development proposed here since the early 1970s.
To the project's critics, the outcome of this conflict will be a litmus test of the county's willingness to control urban sprawl.
To its supporters, the project is the antithesis of sprawl. Canoa Ranch is the last remnant of a Spanish land grant dating back two centuries. Fairfield Homes, the developer, having built 25 years' worth of stucco homes and red tile roofs in the adjoining retirement community of Green Valley, now wants to build another 6,100 houses on the ranch over the next 25 years. Also on tap are two golf courses - on top of eight currently serving 20,000 Green Valley-area retirees - shopping centers, two hotels, a private air strip and an equestrian center.
The ranch is dotted with mesquite, cholla and prickly pear, surrounding a complex of adobe ranch buildings that date back to World War I. Slicing through the ranch's mid-section is the Santa Cruz River, a wide streambed that once carried water part of the year until irrigation diversion, arroyo-cutting and groundwater pumping dried it up.
Thomson, who works as Fairfield's planning consultant, touts this development as a self-contained community where residents can shop without driving to Tucson. He has promised hiking trails, bikepaths and roads and, smack in the project's midsection, 1,500 acres of open space - moist floodplain land and remnant riparian vegetation that would be publicly accessible.
The project's opponents and critics span a broad spectrum, including farmers, mining interests and rural residents who worry that the project's groundwater use will dry up their wells.
Historic preservationists want the Canoa Ranch turned into a museum tied to the federal Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian runs a nearby $20 million multiple telescope, and it worries that the project's street lights will render the telescope useless because of light pollution.
Canoa officials say they can answer those concerns, and the project has already cleared plenty of hurdles. The county has approved several land-use plan amendments to make way for it. County planners recommended the development, although the County Planning and Zoning Commission narrowly voted in late October 1998 to recommend denial. It was set to go before the Board of Supervisors in January, with few willing to bet on the outcome.
Tucson's blueprint for sprawl dates back nearly four decades, when the city's future was plotted on a full-color map. Green blobs, largely in the mountain foothills, represented low-density zoning of one home or less per acre.
A mass of yellow covered most of the remaining privately owned land south, west and east of the Tucson city limits; it was slated for three to five homes an acre.
Back then, the Tucson metro area had more than a quarter-million people, up from 54,000 in 1940. Development, confined to a narrow strip outside downtown in 1910, was by mid-century careening east toward the Rincon Mountains, exploding north into the Catalina Mountain foothills and starting to nibble at the orange groves on the northwest side.
To veteran Pima County planner Frank Behlau, this plan was sparked by the Manifest Destiny attitudes of the 1950s that foresaw a future of limitless progress. He called it a master plan for sprawl.
"This plan applied the best principles of planning of the 1950s to a community that doubled in population every 10 years," " said Behlau, a silver-haired, low-key man who is respected by all sides in Tucson's growth wars.
"I consider that these planners did a very thoughtful process, using fully articulated planning principles based on population estimates and allocations of land use based on statistical analyses.
"It's just in hindsight that it turned out wrong." "
In the early 1970s came the first stirrings of protest. Activists in favor of controlling growth killed four proposed urban freeways, and then a proposed semiconductor plant. In 1972, they elected one of their own, a deputy county planning director with an in-your-face stance against sprawl.
County Supervisor Ron Asta told a newspaper interviewer that he had sought office "to expose as a hoax and a sham the argument that endless growth is good." "
The next year a Shakespeare professor turned developer galvanized opponents of sprawl even more. He proposed a new town of 17,000 people on the northwest side of the Catalina Mountains, in an area heavily used by desert bighorn sheep. The fight over John Ratliff's proposal marked the apex of Tucson's environmental movement.
This would be the last big zoning change that any local agency would kill for a generation.
Ratliff, who said that he gave up teaching for real estate in part because, "I got greedy, I guess," " promised to build his project without altering the natural landscape, to cluster homes in flat areas, to avoid building houses on hillsides and "to protect the environment at all costs." "
But supervisors voted unanimously in 1973 to deny the rezoning. Supervisor Conrad Joyner said, "No one on this board who hopes to be re-elected as a supervisor or elected to some higher office could afford to vote in favor of Rancho Romero," " the name of Ratliff's new town.
In the next two years, liberal, environmentalist Democrats took over the city council and won a half-dozen seats in the state Legislature. They were clearly marching in step with the public. In 1974, a city government-commissioned poll found strong majorities in favor of reducing the area's 6 percent annual population growth rate, opposing freeways and homebuilding on mountain slopes and supporting "contained growth."
But county supervisor Asta, called a "no-growther" by his critics, had become a lightning rod to developers. Now in the real estate business as a zoning consultant, Asta blames himself in part for his unpopularity. He recalls that to help win passage of a bond issue to buy out the Rancho Romero land, he created a coalition of business and union leaders by combining bonds for roads, parks and other public works.
Then, Asta says, he made his first big mistake.
"I should have taken that coalition and worked out solutions for both environmental preservation and a healthy economy and stepped into the other side to work with them," " Asta said. "Instead, our view was that we'd won the open space bonds, so let's fight these guys and put on more and more controls."
The backlash began in 1975, after the city and county planning departments unveiled a proposed "comprehensive plan." It said Tucson should ease its reliance on tourism and construction jobs, which were liable to boom and bust.
The plan said developers should pay for roads, schools and water lines to serve new subdivisions in areas outside existing neighborhoods.
And, it envisioned a Tucson metro area in 2000 containing twice as many people but with its boundaries largely unchanged. Foothills and mountain slopes would be left in their natural state.
The timing was fatal. Conceived during a real estate boom, the plan appeared during a recession. Government and business leaders denounced it as unrealistic, dictatorial and socialistic.
Bud Walker, chairman of the county board of supervisors, said, "I think the best thing to do with this is to open the cover, pull the rings apart and dump it into the wastebasket." "
Then in 1976, a large water-rate increase that the city council's environmentalist majority approved led to their recall and to the extinction of the control-growth movement. The council had naively put the rate boost into effect in mid-July, triggering water bill increases of up to 100 percent.
"I thought the plan had a lot of good ideas, but when they said that Tucson should no longer cater to tourists - that was the main reason the plan failed," " recalled developer Roy Drachman, the 91-year-old patriarch of Tucson's real estate community. "Every other city in the world wants tourists, but Tucson doesn't want tourists." "
After the city council majority and supervisor Asta were chased from office, phrases such as "controlled growth" and "sprawl" vanished from public discussion.
"For a brief moment, we thought we would get a real comprehensive plan, and managed growth," " recalled Priscilla Robinson, who led the charge for the plan. Instead, the recall and its aftermath bred an era of cynicism, she said - -the idea that you can't do (planning) - it's impossible." "
As the real estate market reheated, up to 250 rezonings a year came before what Behlau recalls as the "go-go board" of 1977-1985. In the Catalina Foothills alone, the supervisors rezoned three tracts of land for golf course and resort communities containing 2,000 or more homes each.
The big prize was Rancho Vistoso, a 10-square-mile, 7,000-home planned community on rolling desert hills northwest of the city. The Vistoso tract included Honey Bee Canyon and the future Street of Dreams. Its approval both symbolized and triggered the wave of rezonings that spread development into every corner of the Tucson area for the next two decades.
Again, Ratliff was the developer and key landowner. In 1977, Vistoso sailed through the board 5-0, despite clear misgivings among county planners about a project of that scale 20 miles north of downtown Tucson and five miles north of the nearest development.
Still, only a handful of residents protested.
One reason for the lack of opposition was that Ratliff still owned a crucial part of the land needed for a state park, and he threatened not to swap it to the state unless the county approved Vistoso. Environmentalists, desperate for the new park, stayed silent.
Afterward, Supervisor David Yetman, a liberal Democrat and the board's only environmentalist, said, "We just gave away the northern half of the county." "
Around the same time, the supervisors also approved a long-range plan for a neighboring area in the Tortolita Mountain foothills. It would allow 64,000 people to live in a 64-square-mile area that then contained fewer than 15,000 people.
Few knew it at the time, but the Tortolita foothills contained the heart of the Tucson area's old-growth ironwood forest, in which thousands of ironwood trees several hundred years old were mixed with densely packed cholla and prickly pear cacti. It was by many accounts the richest such forest in Arizona - as rich as the cacti-laden Saguaro National Park.
The Tortolita desert stretched for several square miles in any direction, with virtually all residents living along the edges of the area. Many roads were dusty, two-lane dirt roads; only a handful were paved.
But in 1982, the supervisors ratcheted up the Tortolita plan again. This time it recommended that the area house up to 300,000 people. The plan called for rezoning land to up to 20 homes per acre in some areas then zoned for one house every four acres.
Recalled county planner Behlau, "It took a relatively low-density plan and jacked it up sky-high." "
The area was a builder's dream. Huge, empty tracts of land were available, with most connected to a new sewer plant by a recently built sewage trunk line. Paved roads were slipping into the area.
At public hearings, residents and environmentalists warned again and again that this plan could doom the resident coyotes, quail, mule deer and other wildlife. David Elwood, a retired planner, said the plan would treat the area as if it were a billiard table, allowing for the leveling of more than half the area's desert.
Developers carried the day. They argued that leaving the land low density would make it impossible to build housing affordable for anyone but the rich.
The northwest side's sprawl was more rapid and explosive than in the rest of the Tucson area, but the dynamics were similar. First came the low-density, large-lot subdivisions, their owners seeking refuge from the crime, traffic and crowding of the inner city. Then came the roads - first dirt, then paved - shooting across the desert like strands on a spiderweb. None were adequate to handle the traffic. Local governments were forever approving bond issues to build and widen roads years after the subdivisions arrived.
Early denizens of the outer ring of subdivisions drilled their own wells and laid septic tanks to handle their sewage. Large subdivisions that came in their wake drew from city-funded water transmission mains and reservoirs and county-funded sewer lines, although Pima County sewer officials still liked to say that the new homebuyers, not existing residents, paid for new lines and pump stations through hookup fees charged to homebuilders. Libraries, police and sheriff's department substations and parks followed behind - often far behind.
The result was a chain of development that left local government officials scrambling to catch up. By the mid-'90s, with thousands of new homes filling the northwest side's desert, the thoroughfares teemed with bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic. Irate citizens who had moved to the area just a decade or two ago to escape the city found city stresses following right behind them. Some parts of the northwest side had no parks, and all the schools were overcrowded.
Left behind was Tucson's inner core, a typically decaying Sunbelt downtown made hollow by the flight to the shopping malls and the unincorporated suburbs. In the 1950s, downtown Tucson was far more prosperous than any city of 200,000 had a right to expect. Four large department stores lined its streets. Art Deco theaters from the 1930s continued to draw moviegoers, and streets were often crammed with traffic.
But by the 1980s and "90s, downtown often seemed a ghost town, its once-thriving storefronts largely empty. While the city continues to try revitalization plans, and artists and nightclubs have slowly started to fill some of the empty storefronts, the area wears a disheveled look.
Part of the problem is that the city failed to lure many of the new suburbs into its fiscal web by annexing them. In 1960, Tucson contained roughly 80 percent of Pima County's population. Today, despite the city's aggressive annexation program, it has half or less. And about one-third of the city's residents is Hispanic, compared to 7 to 12 percent in the suburbs.
In some areas, such as the affluent Catalina Foothills, residents repeatedly shunned city annexation efforts. In part, the largely Republican suburbanites simply didn't want to join the Democratic city. The suburbanites also didn't want to pay city sales taxes, although they used city streets, convention buildings, parks and other facilities. Some said they feared that the city would force rezonings of their lush desert land for tract subdivisions - an argument that grew increasingly hollow as the county continued rezoning that land itself.
At the same time, some older suburbs started forming their own towns, such as Marana and Oro Valley, 15 to 20 miles north of Tucson. Originally formed to preserve their then-rural atmospheres, the towns became more growth-minded in the 1990s as a way to build their tax bases.
The new towns annexed largely empty and unincorporated desert foothills areas, then rezoned them for high-density housing. Residents of unincorporated areas felt trapped between octopus-like city and suburban governments, neither of which, the residents felt, cared about them or their land except as revenue sources.
Tucson officials watched with growing horror as incorporation drives multiplied, fearing that the creation of a ring of incorporated Detroit or Los Angeles-style suburbs around the city would further drain Tucson's tax base.
Although their representation on the county board of supervisors has been sparse since their heyday in the early 1970s, environmentalists have not lost every growth contest. They've killed some freeway and parkway plans and joined forces with anti-tax groups to stop two major sales tax proposals to build other new roads.
They've pushed through laws to protect slopes, washes and private land next to public land, although many of the laws were riddled with loopholes. Owners of private parcels larger than 80 acres that adjoined public land, for instance, have to set aside 50 percent of their property as natural open space. But they can count golf courses as "open." "
By the middle 1990s, signs of political change were showing. Construction work never was the mainstay of the local economy; 25 years ago, it accounted for 12 percent of all Tucson jobs. But when real estate brokers, developers, engineers and architects were added, the growth industry packed enough of a wallop that bumper stickers saying "Does your job depend on growth?" " were common.
Today, construction makes up only 6 percent of the city's work force. While Tucson remains a low-wage city, with salaries 18 to 20 percent below the national average, it's slowly becoming more reliant on higher-wage sectors such as optics and astronomy, software and aerospace.
"The average job in optics pays more than three construction jobs put together," " said Brian Catts, a University of Arizona economist. "Do they and the other high-tech industries dominate the local employment scene? No. But they are the fastest-growing sectors in the community." "
The long-depressed inner-city housing market has also started to revive, as professionals follow in the footsteps of their counterparts on the East and West Coasts and fix up old houses. For the first time, the city had a well-educated constituency committed to a form of development besides sprawl.
But the single biggest factor triggering a change in the political climate has been the bulldozer. First, subdivisions of three, four and five homes to an acre started cutting into the ironwood forest. Since 1990 alone, the county supervisors have granted more than 30 rezonings covering 2,600 acres there. (HCN, 10/3/94).
Then, luxury and retirement communities with names such as RedHawk, the Canyons, Madera Reserve, the Summit and Ventana Mountain Estates landed on steep mountainsides and near the mouths of canyons all over the city.
"You always used to get your NIMBY crowd protesting things, but now, the developers started going to places where people used to go to have wonderful hikes," " said Carolyn Campbell, a former congressional aide who now runs the Sonoran Desert Protection Plan Coalition.
"The mainstream people woke up and said, "No, it's not just a private-property rights issue any more." "'
Tract-housing developers would grade up to hundreds of acres of land at once, leaving behind huge swaths of bare dirt. Their bulldozers and cranes slashed through prickly pear and cholla cacti. Then, they boxed, salvaged and transferred the best cacti and ironwoods to front yards and patches of open space left in between homes, sidewalks and cul-de-sac streets.
Luxury developments, by contrast, left plenty of open space - for those who could get through the subdivisions' iron security gates to see it.
In 1996, anger at all this helped a veteran neighborhood activist win election as a county supervisor. Sharon Bronson's platform was the need for controlled growth; her losing opponent was a real estate broker who raised twice as much in campaign funds.
That gave the Pima County board two hard-core environmentalists for the first time. In 1997, the board got a three-member environmental majority when "green Republican'" Ray Carroll was appointed to replace a member who had died.
That May, the public voted 68-32 to spend $36 million in taxpayer-financed bonds to buy and save nearly 7,000 acres of open space - even though the local chamber of commerce opposed it.
Earlier this year, Supervisor Mike Boyd, a conservative Republican with ties to developers, startled people in Tucson by suddenly pronouncing himself a soldier in the war against sprawl.
"I just don't think growth is paying for itself," " he said.
His comment helped galvanize environmentalists, who formed the 32-group Sonoran Coalition, representing tens of thousands of people, to make a last-ditch effort to save the desert.
Last May, the board started its fight against sprawl by tightening several ordinances protecting native plants and private land lying next to federal park preserves. It also voted to prepare a long-range desert protection plan. When finished in two years, the plan will lay out a long-term guide for buying the choicest remaining desert and imposing land-use restrictions on other parcels. Finally, the board ordered its staff to return with more proposals to toughen up more laws.
Not surprisingly, developers and construction workers sought delays. They warned that many people who would be affected by these changes had not been notified of them.
"I don't know if this is the best way to do what we are doing," " homebuilders' association executive Lurie protested. "We haven't had a chance to really debate the issues." "
"Your recommendation is to not do anything today, and then to do what?" " shot back Supervisor Raul Grijalva, a longtime Hispanic community activist and environmentalist who has sat on the board a decade.
"Get members of the public together to talk it over," " replied Alan Lurie, head of a homebuilders' association.
Grijalva countered that past boards of supervisors had shoved these issues aside again and again, and it was time for a change.
"I don't understand the talk about a rush to judgment when this community has been talking about these ideas for two decades," " he said.
This summer, many proposals were eventually watered down, as hundreds of landowners stormed public meetings to protest controls they said violated their right to build.
But opponents of sprawl gained an ally in an owl about as big as a human fist. In March 1997, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decreed the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl endangered (HCN, 3/31/97). The ruling came after a five-year court battle with the nonprofit Southwest Center for Biological Diversity.
Barely 30 of the tiny, reddish-brown birds survive in southern Arizona's desert-scrub habitat of ironwoods and saguaros along major washes, and the majority can be found on the northwest side of Tucson, now the city's fastest-growing area.
In fall 1997, a high school building, planned for a site right next to where an owl has been seen, was put on hold. It remains in mothballs because of a lawsuit from the Southwest Center and the Defenders of Wildlife that's now before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
By early 1998, federal and county governments were telling real estate developers to conduct pygmy owl surveys before clearing land.
That didn't stop most development, unless an owl was discovered. From the time the owl was listed in March 1997 through November 1998, Pima County gave out building permits for more than 1,300 new single-family homes in pygmy owl habitat, with many of the houses landing in the heart of the ironwood forest.
Yet county officials and the federal government were starting last fall to draw up a long-term plan to protect the pygmy owl and several other Tucson-area endangered species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was also considering a new guideline calling for two years of owl surveys before the bird's habitat could be bulldozed. The agency's proposed survey area spans parts of nine Arizona counties, including Tucson's fastest-growing areas. The extra surveys are needed, the service said, because pygmy owls don't nest in the same place every year, and scientists need a second chance to find them.
Developers warned that the proposal would mean economic disaster and amount to a de facto building moratorium. Chuck Huckelberry, the county's chief executive, disagreed. Most builders could simply move to another section of town where saguaros and other plants that nurture owls don't thrive, he said. In late fall, however, the service delayed its proposal for a year, at the request of Republican Gov. Jane Hull and most of the state's congressional delegation.
Still, Huckelberry himself last fall unveiled a dramatic new blueprint for fighting sprawl. For many years, he was the quintessential engineer. As the county's Public Works director, Huckelberry designed many of the roads, bridges and cement-lined wash projects that nourished the sprawl. But he also pieced together plans to save a number of good riparian areas in the county. Now, his bosses - the supervisors - wanted big change.
His inch-thick proposal calls for buying more than 150,000 acres of mountain parkland and ranchland to save them from development. To give officials time to raise the money, he suggested that the board hold off on rezoning any of the land for homes or businesses.
To work, the plan requires cooperation among suburban governments that have long opened their doors to growth, while refusing to work together to manage it.
This is the first detailed battle plan for saving the desert that any local government leader has laid out in 25 years. And Tim Terrell, president of the real estate lobbying group, the Metropolitan Pima Alliance, acknowledged, "It definitely seems that those who would like to preserve are the ones with the largest voice right now." "
For many Tucson residents, though, the plan comes far too late. By now, major subdivisions are being built in every corner of the valley, many in cities and towns outside the county's sphere of influence. All that can be done now, said activist Gayle Hartmann, a veteran of nearly 30 years of fighting sprawl, "is keep things from getting a lot worse." "
YOU CAN CONTACT ...
* Pima County Board of Supervisors: 130 W. Congress, Tucson, AZ 85701 (520/740-8126).
* Coalition for the Sonoran Desert Protection Plan: 300 E. University Blvd., Suite 300, Tucson, AZ 85705. (Phone Carolyn Campbell, director, 520/629-0525.) E-mail: email@example.com.
* Southern Arizona Home Builders Association: 2840 N. Country Club Road, Tucson, AZ 85716 (520/795-5114).
* Southwest Center for Biological Diversity: Box 710, Tucson, AZ 85792 (520-623-5252). E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
* U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Arizona Field Office, 2321 W. Royal Palm Road, Phoenix, AZ 85021 (602-640-2720, ext. 249). E-mail: mike\email@example.com.