TUCSON, Ariz. - Plumber Neale Allen likes to tell the story about driving down a strip where builders were bulldozing cacti for homes and shopping centers, and getting tough questions from his 7-year-old daughter Sarah.
"She asked me why they
had to scrape everything and kill plants and animals," recalls
Allen, who is 42. "It's real hard to explain to 7-year-olds about
He terms it greed; developers call it
providing jobs and affordable housing. Either way, in the
still-rural outer reaches of the Tucson metro area, some of the
lushest privately owned Sonoran Desert acreage in the United States
is under assault from builders.
This is a
booming city where environmental concerns often get shunted onto
tortuous sidetracks. But never before has the fate of a special
patch of desert come down to a question of 1/72 of an
The exact measurement has to do with some
lettering on a petition and environmentalism reduced to
typographics. Allen sounds somewhat amazed telling the story. He
does not seem like the kind of person to be niggling over fine
print. He's a soft-spoken, career woodworker and plumber who only
recently became a neighborhood activist.
his allies are fighting to save what is called the ironwood forest,
where many of them live on low-impact lots of three to five acres.
The forest is a 50-square-mile patch of mostly raw desert lying a
25-minute drive northwest of downtown Tucson, at the foot of the
craggy Tortolita Mountains. True to its name, the forest is flush
with tall, thick, gnarled ironwood trees.
ironwoods, which can live as long as 800 years, are highly
sensitive trees with a hankering for rich soil and hot climate.
They are found in high concentrations only in Sonoran desert areas
where frosts are uncommon. According to Richard Felger, an
ethnobotanist in Tucson, the ironwoods on the city's northwest side
constitute probably the largest such forest in the United
Until recently, the desert forest has
been out of sight and out of mind to almost everyone who doesn't
live nearby. But in the past seven months, Allen and more than
2,000 other people have formed the Northwest Coalition for
Responsible Development, trying to slow and mitigate development
planned within the forest.
If the current push
continues, within 20 years the entire forest could be subjected to
development, says Jerry Flannery, planning administrator for
Marana, one of the small outlying towns competing with the city of
Tucson to annex land and thereby expand tax bases and development
Two years ago, Marana, population
4,000, stretched its boundaries 11 miles from the town center to
take in much of the forest (some of the forest still lies in
unincorporated Pima County).
Allen say the annexation by Marana carefully skirted rural
homeowners and included as much vacant land as possible. As a
result, many homeowners within the forest have no direct say on
zoning and developments that come right up to the boundaries of
development affects us more than downtown Marana," says Allen. So
this summer the members of Northwest Coalition got just as creative
as the development forces, by encouraging some Marana citizens who
organized as Alliance
"Many of them have
been gerrymandered out by the annexation, and then the town has the
audacity to say, "We don't have to listen to you, you're not
citizens," " says Shari Kelly, who heads Alliance Marana, which she
says has quickly grown to a membership of more than 200
Now the people living in the forest have
activism has ebbed and flowed here over the years, but the
Northwest Coalition and Alliance Marana stand
Kelly makes her living by growing and
selling trees to commercial developers who want to revegetate land
that has been cleared and built upon. "It's scary," she says. "Some
of the (activism) I do may start impacting me financially."
The larger coalition is an odd combination of
eccentric and mainstream. Some of its members live on 20-acre lots
along a private desert airstrip and commute in their planes. In
general, coalition members are more likely to be working class or
middle class than the liberal intellectuals and affluent doctors
and lawyers who fought Tucson's previous bursts of development in
the 1970s and 1980s. At meetings they dress not in Birkenstocks,
but in baseball caps.
Besides Allen, the
coalition's leaders include two custom-home builders, a
schoolteacher and a state government biologist. They're fighting an
uphill battle because for years, local developers usually have had
The county board of supervisors
routinely has approved rezoning requests to allow high-density
housing and other developments in sensitive desert areas. Since
1990, the county has rezoned 2,600 acres on the northwest side.
From January 1989 to May 1992, all but nine of 201 rezoning cases
that came before the board passed unanimously.
Pima County's population, now well above 700,000, has more than
doubled since 1970. While most earlier subdivisions in the desert
allowed one to two houses an acre, today's northwest side projects
go in at three to six houses an acre.
say they need high-density today because anything less costs well
beyond the $80,000 to $120,000 in reach of most
As ethnobotanist Felger - who
opposes high-density housing - puts it, "You don't have drug
dealers if you don't have users, and you don't have developers if
you don't have people wanting houses to live in."
Development creates a
desert where ironwoods, saguaros and other grand native plants
survive largely as showpieces. More and more, subdividers bulldoze
vegetation as a first step. Some plants simply get hauled to the
local landfill, where they can be dumped for free if the hauler
isn't bringing in more than one ton.
are more often transplanted to nurseries or given or sold to home
buyers for their front yards. Many developers say allowing native
plants to remain in place during construction costs too much in
money and delays.
Nate Newberry, land manager
for a big home-building firm called Pulte Homes, also says the
county requires grading land so front yards can drain downhill into
"If a saguaro is
located where the land has to go down one or two feet, it has to be
removed," Newberry says. But Mike Welch, a real estate agent for
the 39-home Montierra development, which has lots as small as
one-third of an acre, says half to two-thirds of the natural desert
was preserved there. Montierra managed to sell well, even though
homes on the smallest lots cost
"I can't speak for
what other developers do, but a lot of them just want to get as
many properties as they can per acre," Welch said. "The more homes
they get per acre, the more money for developers."
What's left behind after the bulldozer comes
through? A drive through developed areas of the northwest side
reveals acres of freshly smoothed-over ground. Once houses are
built, new residents tend to decorate their postage-stamp-sized
yards with rocks and a handful of desert plants that are often
Typical of these developments is North
Ranch, a 727-home subdivision on the unincorporated northwest side.
North Ranch has been under construction off and on since 1987. A
huge strip of grass and non-native palm trees lines the main street
at the subdivision entrance. The houses are medium to bright pink.
Along Cactus Canyon Drive as it winds through the subdivision, 20-
to 30-foot-wide strips of cacti and imported Chilean mesquites
separate pavement from the houses. The banks of washes are lined
with concrete, although the bottoms are kept
activists say at the sight of such projects. Allen says, "The very
essence of Tucson is disappearing."
the project's marketing vice president, disagrees. He takes pains
to point to a 35-foot-tall ironwood that his company spent $9,000
to haul from the bulldozer's path. The ironwood was lifted by crane
into a seven-foot-deep hole in a home-buyer's
activists in the ironwood forest derailed one developer's proposal
last winter; it would have imposed up to 24 housing units per acre
on hundreds of acres of lush desert on the forest's eastern
The activists stopped a smaller project at
the county planning commission in mid-April; it would have
transformed 32 acres of desert into a subdivision of one-acre lots,
abutting existing homes on three- and four-acre
Then in mid-May, the Marana Town Council
considered a proposal from a developer, New World Homes Inc., to
put 2,000 units on 500 acres of the forest. More than 200 people
from the Northwest Coalition packed the hearing room. Since most of
critics were from outside the town, "because of artificial
government boundaries, they weren't allowed a voice," says
The New World Homes project was approved,
in a somewhat scaled-down version: 1,000 housing units and a
600-foot-wide buffer where development would be somewhat more in
tune with the surrounding rural
"We made significant
concessions," says Terry R. Klinger, vice president of New World
Homes. He says that both the county's comprehensive plan and
Marana's town plan allowed for much higher
It was frustration with that town
council hearing that led to formation of Alliance Marana. The
Alliance enlisted town residents to oppose the development, while
the Northwest Coalition continued its attack from any possible
angle, alleging that the ironwood forest had become a pawn to
investors based in Asia. New World Homes incorporated with its
headquarters in Tucson two years ago, and Klinger declines to say
where the partnership that owns the ironwood forest land is
It seems like such an
incredible technicality, how the future of 500 acres of ironwood
forest comes down to a fraction of an inch.
Side-stepping any distant investors as well as the developer and
the town government, Alliance Marana went directly to Marana's
voters, circulating referendum petitions, collecting more than
three times the number of signatures necessary to put the New World
Homes project on the ballot for this November's regular statewide
In a sense, the petition effort was
simpler because the town is so small. Petitioners only had to
collect signatures from 10 percent of the number of people who
voted in the last Marana election. The threshold that had to be met
was 42 signers, and petitioners signed up 135 Marana
But it turned out to be not so simple.
Marana Town Clerk Sandra Groseclose examined the petitions for two
weeks and in mid-July she decided that the petitions were not
valid. Arizona law requires such petitions to be printed in
specific type-sizes: no smaller than 8-point type for the body of
text, 12-point type for some portions. Groseclose says she
consulted with a printer and determined that the petitions had been
done in 7-point and 11-point type: the letters were 1/72 of an inch
Allen says the petitions were
computer-printed in proper type size in the humid environment of a
swamp-cooled building, and the paper or ink may have shrunk
slightly in the town's air-conditioned offices - if the type is too
small at all.
"The law sets a
measurement," says Groseclose, "and I have to comply strictly. I
feel I've done my job, and whether I agree with the law or either
side (of the development controversy), that's not for me to say."
Kelly says she has consulted with printers who
will verify the type on the petitions is the proper size. A judge
will have to decide.
Alliance Marana has filed
suit in Pima County Superior Court, arguing that the petitions
should be honored. The case is scheduled to be heard Oct. 4. If
Alliance Marana prevails after all the legal dust settles, a
special election would be held to approve or disapprove the
development. Of course, there is no guarantee how an election will
Alliance Marana is also involved in an
attempt to recall the mayor, the vice mayor and a key town council
member. Meanwhile, the air is thick with allegations about the town
plotting strategy with the developer.
consulting basis, the town has hired a prominent attorney versed in
development and referendum issues. New World Homes is paying the
attorney's bill, an arrangement Groseclose says is "the custom of
Indeed, when a controversy arose
three years ago over a waste-disposal company's proposal to operate
a large landfill in Marana, and citizens forced a referendum, the
waste company paid all costs of the special election and a
consulting attorney for the town, Groseclose says. That referendum
rejected the landfill.
Groseclose confirms there
have been meetings between town officials and New World Homes
executives and the consulting attorney, but she says the purpose
was to explain her research and decision about the typographic
issue. She says the developer and the town council did not
influence her decision.
Explaining why the
developer is paying for the town's attorney, she says, "We feel
it's not fair for the citizens to pay the costs' when a development
proposal runs into
"My main reason
for getting involved," says Kelly, "was not the environmental
issue. We're interested in citizens' rights. We don't think we
should have to exert our rights. We think the system should ask for
around Tucson," says Allen, "is that we're dealing with such a huge
metro area. We're dealing with huge developers who have national
and international money, (and) there's an apathy problem. People
need to get motivated to get something done. I was a
middle-of-the-road person when I started and now I'm portrayed as
an environmental wacko because that's where the developer wants
Tony Davis covers
environmental issues for the Albuquerque Tribune. Ray Ring
contributed to this report.
For more information, contact:
Coalition for Responsible Development, 10450 N. La Canada, P.O. Box
127, Oro Valley, AZ 85737 (phone Lan Lester at 602/544-4057 or
Neale Allen at 602/579-0157).
P.O. Box 504, Marana, AZ 85653 (602/682-4109).
Town of Marana, 13251 N. Lon Adams, Marana, AZ 85653
New World Homes, 3550 N. First
Ave., Suite 150, Tucson, AZ 85719