Subdividing the desert: Should there be a vote?

  • Developers' signs in Arizona

    Mark Luthringer
  • Richard Felger, a Tucson ethnobotanist, under a spreading ironwood

    Mark Luthringer
  • Neale Allen is fighting to save the ironwood forest around his home

    Mark Luthringer
  • A bulldozer stands idle in the desert

    Mark Luthringer
  • This new housing development has sprung up in the Tucson desert

    Mark Luthringer

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 greed."

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 inch.

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.

He and 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.

Desert 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 States.

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 potential.

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).

Activists like 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 their property.

"But the 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 Marana.

"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 people.

Now the people living in the forest have some leverage.

Neighborhood activism has ebbed and flowed here over the years, but the Northwest Coalition and Alliance Marana stand out.

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 their way.

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.

Developers say they need high-density today because anything less costs well beyond the $80,000 to $120,000 in reach of most pocketbooks.

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.

The cacti 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 streets.

"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 $159,000.

"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 exotics.

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 natural.

"Disney desert," activists say at the sight of such projects. Allen says, "The very essence of Tucson is disappearing."

Don Larson, 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 backyard.

The neighborhood 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 edge.

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 lots.

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 Kelly.

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 ambiance.

"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 densities.

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 based.

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 election.

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 voters.

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 too small.

"It's ludicrous," says Allen.

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 turn out.

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.

On a 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 the town."

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 opposition.

"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 our input."

"The problem 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 me."

Tony Davis covers environmental issues for the Albuquerque Tribune. Ray Ring contributed to this report.

For more information, contact:

Northwest 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).

Alliance Marana, P.O. Box 504, Marana, AZ 85653 (602/682-4109).

Town of Marana, 13251 N. Lon Adams, Marana, AZ 85653 (602/682-3401).

New World Homes, 3550 N. First Ave., Suite 150, Tucson, AZ 85719 (602/745-9800).

High Country News Classifieds