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The Oro Valley Town Council debated an update to its economic development strategy on July 15, but was ultimately unsuccessful in passing the measure due to a dispute over preliminary grading of desert land.

Town staff proposed a code amendment to the Economic Expansion Zone that would remove barriers to attracting new companies while also strengthening the protections for nearby residents. The code amendment takes away the existing 20-day review period and replaces it with increased public outreach ahead of any new project.

The EEZ was created in 2012 to attract primary employers to Innovation Park. Last year, the town council expanded the EEZ to include all tech-park zoned land in Oro Valley.

Oro Valley Community and Economic Development Director JJ Johnston said it’s important for the town to have ready-to-build sites and have a predictable and efficient review process if they want to attract quality employers to the region.

“Although Oro Valley has a strong brand of being a safe, family-friendly and beautiful community, not having pre-graded sites, inconsistent code applications and an unpredictable process are barriers deterring site selectors from developing here,” council documents state.

The proposed amendment also included preliminary grading of sites in the EEZ ahead of an incoming company. About half of the seven-member council took issue with this provision, as they did when it was proposed six months ago.

Milini Simms, the town’s principal planner, previously said Oro Valley’s existing code does allow preliminary grading, but it’s decided on a case-by-case basis at the discretion of the town engineer, Paul Keesler.

Johnston told the council that surrounding jurisdictions in Southern Arizona already allow preliminary grading, and Oro Valley is at a significant competitive disadvantage for new development projects if they don’t adopt a similar policy.

“What we’re asking for is a best practice across the country,” said Town Manager Mary Jacobs.

But council member Melanie Barrett said authorizing preliminary grading of natural desert land before a company is committed to build on the site would be “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

“We feel like Oro Valley is a special place, that it’s different than downtown Tucson or certain areas around the airport or Pima County and people who want to locate in Oro Valley are going to do so because of the good lifestyle and amenities and things that we have to offer,” she told the other council members. “I don’t think that this will be an extremely significant hindrance, but I do think that a lot of our citizens will care about this. I’m convinced that there would be significant portions that could potentially be pregraded that would be very visible from the hill on Tangerine Road, which is one of our scenic corridors.”

Mayor Joe Winfield pointed out that there are graded sites currently in Oro Valley that are sitting vacant and have been for over a decade. Miller Ranch, sites along Oracle Road, Foothills Business Park and Innovation Park are all potential areas for preliminary grading under this code amendment.

Council member Bill Rodman responded that the council needs to trust in their economic development team, and give them the resources and tools they need to successfully bring in outside companies.

Johnston said the preliminary grading of sites is a key aspect of site selection. If Oro Valley doesn’t have “shovel-ready” sites, they won’t meet the criteria for many competitive companies.

“We’ll have to work a lot more creatively without having this tool in our toolkit,” Johnston said. “You pay me to give you objective subject matter expert advice. I’ve done this for 45 years, I’m a former site selector, I’ve seen these spreadsheets, I’ve initiated them, and if we can’t check those boxes, we are eliminated. That’s just the reality of our business.”

Greater Oro Valley Chamber of Commerce President Dave Perry said the longer it takes for a business to build its new headquarters, the longer it takes them to start generating revenue. The difference between choosing a pre-graded site versus an untouched site could equal millions of dollars in losses for some high-earning companies.

However, Barrett and Winfield were still uncomfortable with the idea. Barrett believes this change would give land owners the ability to bulldoze over pristine desert land at any time, and town staff can’t stop them.

Oro Valley Planning Manager Bayer Vella said any applicant must first process a site plan and get it approved by staff before they can apply for a grading permit.

Council member Rhonda Piña said this debate really came down to the balance between preserving the natural beauty of Oro Valley and accommodating the demands of the competitive economy.

Winfield said he doesn’t see the exclusion of automatic preliminary grading as a major impediment. He said he doesn’t want to completely prohibit pregrading, but the council should put in safeguards to “ensure that the project has the greatest likelihood of success as possible.”

Ultimately, Mayor Winfield, Barrett and council member Josh Nicolson wanted to reject the preliminary grading aspect, while council members Rodman, Piña and Steve Solomon were in favor of it. Council member Joyce Jones-Ivey said she was “torn” on the issue and needed more information, so she abstained from voting.

With a split decision, the council was forced to continue this code amendment proposal to their next meeting in September.

The Town of Oro Valley added an additional 108-acres to its portfolio after a donation from the Rooney family. Through their corporation Canada Del Oro, LLC, the family offered Areas 3 and 4 of the Oro Valley Town Centre Planned Area Development to the town as a gift.

The property consists of residential and commercial zoned land located east of the Oracle Road and Pusch View Lane intersection. The family placed no restrictions over the use of the property, besides appropriately recognizing Laurence Francis Rooney when the property is eventually used or developed.

The town council voted to accept the gift during a special session on July 22.

“This property was recently rezoned by the town council last fall, and the corporation, led by Patrick Rooney, has determined that the donation to the town of this property with no conditions attached to it would be in their organization’s best interest,” Town Manager Mary Jacobs said at the meeting.

The town will have to pay certain fees associated with accepting ownership of the land. At this time, there is no determined use or development of the property, and the town will be responsible for insuring and monitoring the land as well as addressing any property management issues that may arise.