Today, much of the land looks the way suburban Phoenix and Tucson did 50 years ago. But the county, population 167,000, is rapidly becoming a suburb of those cities. It is one of three rural Arizona counties whose population has jumped at least 45 percent since 1990; Willow Springs is the fourth large-scale development proposed in the county in the last 11 years.
The uninincorporated town of Oracle, a self-proclaimed "hodgepodge" of 4,500 people where mobile homes abut ranch-style and split-level homes, prides itself on its economic diversity. Many residents worry that big new developments such as Argueta's will drain their water supply, flood their two-lane roads with cars and attract a monoculture of wealthy retirees and other migrants seeking a sun-drenched playground.
Critics have beaten back the proposals so far, usually by launching or threatening time-consuming referendum drives to get public votes on the projects. But local activists such as Darrel Klesch are tired. Klesch, an Oracle-area resident since the 1950s, spent several months last year collecting 8,000 signatures in his third battle against a development. "How many more referendums can we do?" he asks. So for some Pinal County residents, the Citizens Growth Management Initiative has arrived in the nick of time.
The Citizens Growth Management Initiative, Proposition 202, would install a system of urban growth boundaries to rein in large-scale, "leapfrog" development. Backed by a long list of environmental groups - and intensely opposed by the development industry - the initiative would put the power to approve large projects directly in voters' hands.
As Arizona's population tops 5 million - 37 percent higher than a decade ago - opinion polls have persistently shown it winning big, with 62 to 70 percent of the vote.
Arizona State University journalism professor Bruce Merrill says the polls reflect a statewide concern about growth's effects on traffic, school overcrowding, water supplies and the desert landscape.
"People are really looking for some kind of a plan," he says. "Even if it is not a good plan, it is a plan."
A media blitzIf Proposition 202 passes, new developments proposed during the next two years will need a four-fifths vote of a local governing body. By Jan. 1, 2003, all 15 counties and cities with 2,500 or more people will need to draw up growth-management plans and growth boundaries; the plans and boundaries will then require approval by local voters. Growth boundary expansions and most rezonings outside the boundaries will need public votes.
Local governments would be prohibited from extending water lines and public services beyond the boundaries. Inside the boundaries, new developments would have to pick up the tab for schools, roads, police and fire stations, parks and sewer and water lines, except within designated areas aimed at encouraging infill development.
In recent weeks, developers and others in the real estate industry have ratcheted up their attacks on the initiative, claiming that Proposition 202 will flood the courts with lawsuits, stop growth, raise housing prices, and force newcomers into crowded urban centers.
Opponents have raised at least $3.5 million - dwarfing the $500,000 raised by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups - and they've used the funds to produce a slick series of radio, TV and print ads.
"Do you want 35 HOUSES TO THE ACRE, filthy INDUSTRIAL AND STRIP MALL DEVELOPMENTS in your neighborhood?" reads a large postcard mailed to homeowners by a real estate industry group. "Extremists, lawyers and bureaucrats just don't have a clue. With 202, we'll be trapped like rats. That's what Boundaries will do."
The postcard is just the beginning. The most spectacular ad, a glossy, 4-foot-long mailer, shows the entire initiative on one side and attacks it on the other side, arguing that the initiative will cost jobs, drive up housing prices within the boundaries by reducing land supplies, and keep farmers from dividing land for their children.
"The consequences of the initiative need to be communicated to the voters," says Spencer Kamps, a longtime homebuilders' spokesman now serving as director of Arizonans for Responsible Planning, a political action committee. "This is an expensive process."
Keith Bagwell, an organizer for the initiative, calls the postcard "the sleaziest piece of crap I've ever seen.
"Within the growth boundary, there could be higher densities and there probably should be, but not 35 homes to the acre," he says.
Supporters also point out that in mid-September, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce conceded that the initiative could cost only 235,000 jobs over the next decade - not the 1 million jobs projected by a recent chamber-funded study - and that the loss represents a decline in new jobs, not actual job cuts. Initiative backers also say that higher land costs caused by a shrinking supply of land have been shown to be a minor factor in housing-price increases in Oregon, where growth boundaries already exist.
"The best thing I can say about these ads is that they are misleading," says Sandy Bahr, a Sierra Club lobbyist. "Proposition 202 is being opposed by big development interests and politicians. We think the public will see through it."
A civil warAs developers continue their attacks, they're also working on a defensive strategy. In Phoenix, a real estate-oriented law firm has written a memo to developers outlining "practical strategies to protect against the growth boundaries initiative." The memo urges developers to obtain subdivision plans and other approvals before the initiative vote, and advises them to seek legal documentation guaranteeing that a project has the right to be built.
Few areas feel the push more strongly than the lowlands of Pinal County. In the past two years, county supervisors have approved, usually unanimously, enough rezonings for more than 120,000 new homes. This fall, a half-dozen new projects totaling 60,000 more homes were knocking on the county government's door, seeking to squeeze in an approval before the initiative vote.
Deborah Bricker-Goles, a manager for a Phoenix firm seeking three Pinal County rezonings totaling more than 17,000 homes, promises slow, "staged growth." But with a lot of legal opinions floating around about the initiative's effects, she says, it makes sense to try to get rezonings in as soon as possible.
Environmentalists contend that developers seeking last-minute rezonings subvert the democratic process.
"The developers don't want the people who are here to have a say in the growth of their state," says the County Oracle, a newspaper published by Oracle activists.
But Alex Argueta says he wants to meet with environmentalists and other residents to negotiate the most environmentally sound development possible. His was the only development seeking a last-minute rezoning to get a negative recommendation from the Pinal County Planning and Zoning Commission. Argueta then decided to abandon any efforts to get his zoning approved by Election Day and is considering scaling back his project, which he hopes to present to the county board of supervisors in December.
He says that through good planning, Willow Springs will respect the washes and other patches of open space where deer and antelope migrate between mountain ranges. By setting aside 200 acres for vineyards near an old ranch-house complex, he hopes to create a Napa Valley atmosphere.
He says that some form of boundary or limit is needed on "helter-skelter growth," but says the initiative will cause more problems than it solves, particularly a provision giving citizens the right to sue to enforce it.
After seeing five close friends die at the hands of guerrilla or military-sponsored violence during El Salvador's civil war, Argueta doesn't want to fight in the trenches for this project.
"I come from a country that doesn't sue anyone," he said. "Litigation is looked on as something that all it does is line the pockets of lawyers with money. I love mediation."
But initiative supporters say a citizen suit provision - common in federal environmental laws - ensures that public officials carry out the initiative. As Oracle activist Klesch sees it, Arizona is in the midst of a civil war over development - "and the bulldozers are the tanks."
The author reports for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.YOU CAN CONTACT ...
- Arizonans for Responsible Planning (opposed to 202), 602/255-0772;
- Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter, 602/253-8633.