Monday, January 13, 2020

Guest View: Diane Peters ~ Local builder violates Town Code and recklessly destroys 10 saguaros in Oro Valley

As someone who has been actively involved in Oro Valley development issues for over 10 years and is fed up with the wanton destruction of our beautiful desert by developers who value profit over wildlife and conservation, I was intrigued by a discussion that took place during a council meeting last year involving Vice Mayor Barrett, Councilmember Pina, and Planning Administrator, Bayer Vella.

The discussion involved a residential development known as Saguaros Viejos. Vice Mayor Barrett was concerned about the possibility that more saguaros would be removed than what is allowed by the Town.

Council and Staff discussion
Barrett: What is the penalty for saguaros that are supposed to be preserved in place but are taken out?

Vella: The penalty is laid out in Code. It’s a formula – the height of the saguaro, the number of arms, there’s a set fee amount. If that occurs, a fine would be levied and the applicant would have to replace the saguaro. The code specifies that it has to be the same size and species, so if a 24-foot high saguaro is pushed over, there would be a fine levied and they would have to find another 24-foot tall saguaro.

Barrett: Is that even possible to transplant a 24-foot saguaro?

Vella: That’s not something we encourage. The survivability rate above 24 feet is very poor. Our aim is to prevent that by requiring fencing around each saguaro.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

Pina: Historically, has the Town ever incurred any violations…in dealing with saguaros?

Vella: I’m disappointed to report that the answer is yes. It has occurred once in my time with the Town (19 years). Fines were levied and replacements of the saguaros were required.

Pina: And when that situation occurred, was it intentional or was it a situational deal, but at the end of the day you still have a violation?

Vella: I can’t speak to motive but there was a significant violation. It was a very serious issue.

I contacted the Town for more information
Upon hearing that this was a significant violation, I contacted Mr. Vella and asked for the name of the builder, the location of the violation, in what year it took place, how many saguaros were destroyed, and the amount of the fine that the builder received. The answers were as follows:

• The builder was Fairfield Homes
• The location was the Enclave at Stone Canyon
• The violation took place in 2015
• 10 saguaros were destroyed
• The fine levied was $335,288 (later refunded by the Town; see below)

I followed-up with a Public Records Request. I asked to see all correspondence between the Town and Fairfield Homes (and the engineering firm, Cypress Development) and documentation that the fine was paid in its entirety. When the documents were ready, I met with Mr. Vella at his request to review the documents. What follows is what I learned in that meeting.

The violation
The entire 13-acre site was graded in order to accommodate the approximate 8,000 square foot lot sizes. Although this grading is allowed when the average lot size is less than 15,000 square feet, the violation occurred when the builder ignored the native plant salvage requirements and just bulldozed everything to smithereens. (My words, not Mr. Vella’s).

The saguaros that were leveled were all between 12 and 20 feet in height. (According to information obtained from Saguaro National Park, this places the age of those saguaros at 50 to 75 years old!)

Intent of the Code
The Code’s intent is not to get money into the Town coffers. The intent is to force the builder to replant the destroyed vegetation since that is what’s most important to the residents living in the area of the Code violation. The Town will also not issue any home permits until the builder either pays the cash fine upfront or until after the plant restoration is completed.

There are two separate fines
• A non-refundable punitive fine for grading the site without permission.
In this case, the builder was fined $27,788.

• A separate fine for the destruction of native plants, which is refunded after the restoration.
In this case, the builder was fined $335,288 which was later refunded by the Town.

However, the cost to replace the saguaros is entirely on the builder. In this case, it cost Fairfield Homes approximately $77,000 to mitigate the damage. They also did $32,000 of off-site restoration in other areas of Stone Canyon.

The builder’s final cost was $136,788.

I’m sure that $136,788 was a drop in the bucket for Fairfield considering that new homes in The Enclave at Stone Canyon are priced in the $700,000 range.  The Enclave

But shouldn’t someone be behind bars?
In December 2017, a local resident speaking during a Public Hearing, stated that developers were working at night destroying large saguaro cactus. When he contacted the Town to report this violation, he was told that they didn’t have enough staff to monitor these operations.

Below was Councilmember Steve Solomon’s response to this resident.
“...and it’s not fair for you to come in here and make up stories about Oro Valley blading down saguaros in the middle of the night. That’s an outright lie. That doesn’t happen. It’s never happened. If it did happen people would be behind bars.”
That’s an outright lie
Solomon always speaks with such authority that anyone who does not know his history of stating falsehoods as facts would just assume that he’s telling the truth. I know his history so I emailed him for clarification of his comment. What specifically would land the person behind bars? Destroying the saguaros by mistake or secretly destroying them at night when no one was watching? I also asked him to point me to the specific code that states that this violation would result in jail time.

Not surprisingly, Solomon refused to answer my questions, stating only that his comments were “self-explanatory.” Not one to give up easily, I asked him again, this time informing him that his answer (or lack thereof) would appear in this Guest View. This time he responded, “In the Town’s history of 25+ years…the illegal destruction of saguaros occurred only ONCE.” He never said, “I was mistaken” or “I misspoke.” He also failed to provide proof that this violation would land the person behind bars.

Keep in mind that he made the assertion that “It’s never happened” in December 2017, two years after the aforementioned Fairfield Homes violation occurred.

Shannon 80 area residents beware!
I asked Mr. Vella if Fairfield Homes has been allowed to continue building in Oro Valley despite this significant violation. Unfortunately, the answer was yes. (I would think they would have been told to pack their bags and get out of Dodge forever.)

Where else are they being allowed to build? Well, it turns out that David Williamson of Fairfield Homes is also the person who purchased the property known as The Shannon 80 (east side of Shannon Road, south of Naranja). The last I knew, the plan is to build 80 single-family homes on that parcel. Keep in mind that when the Town surveyed this property, they found that the highest density of Ironwood trees in Oro Valley was located on this parcel.

I wonder how many Ironwood trees Fairfield will destroy. For those who are new to this area, Ironwood trees can live to be 800+ years old!
Diane Peters has lived in Oro Valley since 2003, moving here to escape the humidity of the East Coast. She’s been involved in OV politics and development issues since 2006. In 2014, she organized a citizens group, who over a 9-month period, successfully negotiated a controversial 200-acre development project. In her past life, she worked in medical research at various University Hospitals in New England. Her interests include reading, writing, nature photography, travel, art galleries, museums, and politics.