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Environmental conservation values, balance and results

Photo of Bayer Vella with Oro Valley Town Seal and desert background

Environmental conservation has always ranked high as a community value in Oro Valley. Community surveys conducted as part of the last two state-mandated general plan updates positioned public safety and the environment as the two highest priorities.

August 8, 2018

In fact, the Your Voice, Our Future General Plan, ratified by 71 percent of Oro Valley voters in 2016, declares a “high regard” for our “extraordinary natural environment and scenic views.” It’s further supported by guiding principles, policies and actions developed by teams of residents in response to an unprecedented level of community involvement. Oro Valley town codes reflect these values and result in tangible conservation of environmental resources.

The challenge is balancing priorities for the overall betterment of the community, because the current and previous general plans also include other community values. Our residents, by way of Your Voice, Our Future, have asked us to “Create a complete community with a broad range of shopping, dining and places to gather,” and to “Grow the number of high-quality employment opportunities,” to name a few. So we find ourselves in a position where we must achieve balance for the multiple desires and values that sometimes contradict each other.

How does the town achieve that balance? The answers lie in the last three general plans, which call for the adoption or maintenance of an Environmentally Sensitive Lands Ordinance. The idea is to comprehensively identify key resources and allow planning tools that ensure conservation and compatible development. Your Voice, Our Future includes a specific list of ways to achieve a balance, including cluster development.

The concept of cluster development is simple. Instead of spreading development over the entirety of an area, a significant portion is left as open space. In these examples, both designs result in development of 18 lots.

Only the clustered development results in permanently conserved and connected open space (shaded area). This is done by decreasing the lot sizes and designating land conservation easements outside of homeowners’ yards. Numerous environmental and planning organizations recognize this approach as a sustainable method to balance both environmental and development expectations. 

How did the community determine the right balance of land conservation and permissible development in the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Ordinance? Beginning in 2008, and over the course of two years, there were two advisory committees including residents and technical experts, community forums, stakeholder meetings and public hearings used to draft the ordinance, with final adoption by town council in 2010.

Building upon the work of Pima County’s Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, the ESL employs a tiered system of environmental resource categories. Each category has its own open space requirements based on scientific analysis and specific general plan land use designations. An extensive biological study was conducted within the town limits resulting in a town-wide ESL map of these categories.

So, has ESL truly made a difference since 2010? From where I stand, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

ESL results in tangible design changes that conserve significant environmental areas while also providing realistic development options. Due to legal constraints, ESL predominately applies to re-zonings, and has been applied to 12 subdivisions situated on a total of 771 acres. A full 432 acres of that area were conserved as permanent and natural open space, equaling 56 percent of the total land area.

How does this compare to the town’s previous efforts to conserve open space? We studied the same 12 subdivisions to measure a “what if” scenario using the pre-ESL zoning requirements. The amount of total open space conserved would have been 175 acres instead of 432 acres. Clearly, ESL provides a regulatory structure that yields consistent results, which is a far cry from the lower amounts and less refined mapping of the past.

Understandably, the extent and style of development is still an intensive conversation with every new development proposal. At neighborhood meetings, many are concerned that smaller lots within a clustered development will negatively impact property values. To date, this has not been our experience in Oro Valley. Conservation subdivisions are generally able to charge more premiums because so many lots abut permanent open space. 

Highly visible examples of ESL compliant development include the new Villages at Silverhawke and Sanctuary at Silverhawke subdivisions, located along First Avenue, from Naranja Drive to Tangerine Road. The Villages conserves 56 percent, and Sanctuary sets aside 73 percent of the project as permanent open space. This is a considerable area, especially when compared to the surrounding pre-ESL subdivisions that provide only 5 to 29 percent of the area as conserved open space. Furthermore, each ESL subdivision includes small lots that match or exceed the value of neighboring and larger-sized properties. A picture is worth a thousand words, so please check out the graphics and numbers provided at

The Environmentally Sensitive Lands Ordinance is intended to reflect the values and priorities of Oro Valley’s residents. To date, it is performing as envisioned by those residents who helped develop this ordinance. As with all issues relative to growth and development in Oro Valley, residents will–and should—continue to discuss that balance. This is a healthy and ongoing conversation in the community and a strong reflection upon the great pride and care of our residents.

By Bayer Vella, LEED-AP, AICPPlanning Manager/Planning and Zoning Administrator - Explorer Newspaper, 8/8/18