September 13, 2008
County Weighs Buying Disputed 106-Acre Parcel
By ERICA MELTZER
Pima County taxpayers may end up buying a 106-acre Southwest Side property that the county designated for industrial use against the wishes of the owners, who wanted to put a residential subdivision there.
County officials said they need more industrial and commercial land in the area so future residents can work and shop near their homes without making long drives, and the changes raised the value of the land.
But the owners, an investment group that includes the Economic Development Authority of the Tohono O'odham Nation, said there already is plenty of industrial land in the area, but little interest in developing it, and the county decision rendered it nearly worthless.
They also accuse the county of acting in retaliation for the Tohono O'odham Nation closing a road that illegally crossed reservation land, cutting off residents from their land and forcing the county to buy land for an alternate route.
Earlier this summer, the owners filed a claim against the county - often the first step in filing a lawsuit - demanding the county pay $2.4 million to reimburse the owners for the $1.6 million purchase price and the costs of trying to develop the land.
The owners also filed a claim against the Arizona Board of Regents, the previous owner, alleging it grossly overstated the land value and didn't disclose an appraisal that put the value closer to $500,000.
The regents referred questions to the Office of General Counsel at the University of Arizona. Officials there could not be reached.
Representatives of the landowners met last month with County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. While county officials say they did nothing wrong, Huckelberry told staff to look into buying the land for a regional park.
"We're looking at seeing if that property has any potential to meet a regional park requirement," Assistant County Administrator for Public Works Policy Nanette Slusser said. "We're doing some analysis of that."
The county's Southwest Infrastructure Plan, the same study the county used to determine the need for industrial land, found the area will need some 2,000 acres of park land to meet future needs.
The county's Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan identifies the area west of Mission Road, along Ajo Way and Valencia Road, as appropriate for higher density development because it has less ecological value than some areas in the Northwest and Southeast. But the area is prone to sheet flooding and needs more roads, sewer capacity, schools, libraries and law enforcement to support that growth.
In 2006, three proposals that would have added up to 5,000 new homes on 1,500 acres came before the Board of Supervisors seeking comprehensive plan amendments. Such amendments are the first planning step, before a rezoning. San Joaquin Land Investments wanted to build roughly 340 homes on the 106-acre site, making it the smallest of the proposals, but it presented certain challenges, including a wash that crossed the property and concerns from the neighboring Tucson Trap and Skeet Club that future residents would complain about noise and lights, forcing them to move.
State law requires comprehensive plan amendment decisions to be heard in the year they are filed, but the county supervisors asked all three developers to wait a year so the county could conduct an infrastructure study. Part of that study, which also recommended much higher impact fees in the area, was an employment study that recommended a ring of industrial land around Ryan Airfield.
While the two other landowners, with much larger proposals, received approval late last year for mixed-use developments that could include thousands of new homes, San Joaquin Land Investments was restricted to industrial or commercial uses.
"In the opinion of the landowner and its members ... the property cannot now be developed for any reasonable use and thus, it no longer has value," the investment group's claim says. "Effectively, Pima County has acquired the property as open space while leaving the landowner with the burden of paying real property taxes."
County officials contend they increased the value of the land.
"We think it increased the value of the property, in fact significantly so," Slusser said. "If it does harm them, it certainly wasn't an intentional harm. We thought it was a benefit to them. They may have been set on a certain outcome, and they may not want to change their plans."
The landowners accuse the county of retaliating against them because the Tohono O'odham Nation closed a stretch of road that cut illegally across reservation land to Hayhook Ranch, a wildcat subdivision west of Three Points. The road was the only access to the subdivision, and the county had to purchase land along a different route and put in a new road.
"The county took the action here to, in effect, retaliate for the Nation's exercise of its sovereign rights in connection with Coleman Road," the claim says. "The county's actions treated the Property differently than other properties in the area; the county singled out and discriminated against the Landowner in a manner that was arbitrary, capricious and constitutes an abuse of discretion."
The timing of events and an e-mail from a county employee that referenced Coleman Road led the landowners to believe the decision was payback, said Larry Schubart, an attorney for the landowners.
But Schubart would not elaborate because he was "making progress" on resolving the issue. He said he wants to keep the issue out of court and hopes the county will consider a land exchange or simply buy the land.
"The county has expressed a willingness to try to resolve the issue with discussions at an informal and probative stage," Schubart said.
Slusser said county staff are compiling all their records and e- mails in response to a request from Schubart, but she has not seen any e-mails connecting the land use decision with Coleman Road.
"The people working on this project were not the same people working on Hayhook Ranch," she said. "There was no overlap."
Lee Bachman, president of the Tucson Trap and Skeet Club, said he would have no objection to a county park next to the club. When houses were proposed, club members said they worried children might trespass on the club's property, creating a liability issue. Bachman said a park would not pose the same threat because younger children would not be at the park unattended or at night, when many club events are held.
Also, people who would be bothered by the shooting could simply stay away.
"With a park, they'll have the choice to come out or not come out," he said. "With houses, it's been a historically correct assumption that if you put residential next to a shooting club, that's the end of the shooting club."
DID YOU KNOW
The Tohono O'odham Nation stretches for 75 miles along the U.S.- Mexico border. The tribe's chairman, Ned Norris, Jr., became the 24th chairman of the nation on June 11, 2007, when he began his four- year term.
* Source: Star news archives
* Contact reporter Erica Meltzer at 807-7790 or [email protected]
Originally published by ERICA MELTZER, ARIZONA DAILY STAR.
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