Town of Sahuarita staff will recommend to the Town Council on Monday that developers be asked to set aside less acreage for park land than currently required.
The recommendation — from eight acres per 1,000 residents down to seven — goes against the wishes of the Parks and Rec Commission and residents who attended meetings earlier this year, according to background information filed with the proposed resolution.
The resolution that will go before the board Monday came after a meeting this summer with the Metropolitan Pima Alliance, Southern Arizona Home Builders Association and Crown Community Development, which represented Farmers Investment Company, which plans future development. The meeting was held at the direction of the council and included several members of the town staff, a council member and a parks commission member.
Sahuarita is about 25 percent short of its goal for parks. The town's Parks and Recreation Area Design and Development Standards Manual, adopted in 2005, calls for developers to have eight acres of parkland for every 1,000 residents. With an estimated Census Bureau population of about 30,000, the town should have 240 acres of parkland. According to Park and Recreation Director Nanette Smejkal, it's short about 60 acres.
The total acreage includes private parks, such as those in Rancho Sahuarita, and public parks managed by the town. According to Assistant Town Manager Teri Bankhead, about 42 of the 60-acre shortfall is in Rancho Sahuarita. The Rancho Sahuarita Specific Plan, which maps out the development's infrastructure, was approved by the town before it had established its own manual with an eight-acre per 1,000 resident guideline.
Rancho Sahuarita spokesman Michael Racy said people vote with their feet and pocketbooks, and throughout the 2008 recession the community was a top-seller in Arizona and the United States because of the quality of its parks, clubhouses, pools, trails, open spaces and amenities.
"We applaud the town for wanting to enhance standards community-wide in order to better correspond with what has been done in Rancho," Racy said. "We have and we continue to offer the donation of additional lands for parks to serve the broader community, not just Rancho, however the Town must be willing to do their part in that park development."
Even at the reduced rate of seven acres, the town would still have about a 15 percent park land deficit. The new guideline would require future subdivisions to dedicate seven acres to parks during construction. There would also be changes to the in-lieu fee, which developers can use to split payment in exchange for covering a portion of the required acreage of recreation area.
Under the current guidelines, developments of any size can pay 50 percent of the land requirement through an in-lieu fee. Proposed changes would allow developments with 51 homes or more to use an 80/20 split with 20 percent of the requirement being fulfilled in the form of an in-lieu fee. Developments with 50 homes or fewer can pay a 100 percent in-lieu fee. The fee has not been increased in 14 years. The resolution recommends setting that fee at "no greater" than the cost to the town to acquire and construct parks.
The town has been working about 10 years to revise the manual, with much of the effort in the last five years.
"It’s been a 10-year off-and-on process with the Parks and Rec Commission, with staff, with the public," Smejkal said. "It’s one of the council’s strategic goals we update the manual. We’ve had more than 35 meetings with the Parks and Rec Commission and we’ve had dozens of meetings with stakeholders and it’s included a lot of people."
The Parks and Recreation Commission has had proposed revisions to the manual on its agenda 35 times. There were four meeting in 2009, six in 2015, 10 in 2016, eight in 2017, five in 2018 and two in 2019, with the latest Oct. 2.
According to town documents, stakeholders representing the broader community and the commission wanted to increase or keep the acreage requirement at eight acres per 1,000 residents and require developers to build all or most of the required acreage rather than having in-lieu fees. The commission had supported 10 acres per 1,000 residents at one point, according to town documents.
However, the town reported 2019 meetings with developer stakeholders during the summer expressed concerns over the required acreage, costs of the in-lieu fees and percentage of acreage and in-lieu fee use. Town staff incorporated those concerns into the changes being presented to the council Monday, the document stated.
"Seems we've moved backwards," commissioner Sheldon Zatkin said during the Oct. 2 meeting. "Seems like all those meetings to come up with this document with the stakeholders was a waste of time, for me anyway. I totally understand being competitive in the marketplace, but I also understand what's being right for this town and the people in this town."
Zatkin took issue with developers and town staff having previously accepted eight acres as the standard then finding the proposed version was reduced to seven.
Council member Gil Lusk said reducing the goal to seven acres would better reflect what the town actually has in acreage, which comes in more at three to four acres per 1,000.
“We thought that making the seven would be a way of moving the issue forward with making a wee bit of compromise, nothing significant, and that will allow us to transition into numbers as we go forward,” Lusk said. “We didn’t consider it to be a major factor because, again, the seven is well in advance of what we currently have in place, not what we currently ask but what we actually have in place.”
Commission chair Diane Huckins declined to comment and referred questions to Smejkal. The Parks and Recreation Commission was presented with the revisions and made no recommendations during its Oct. 2 meeting.
Just north of Sahuarita, the City of Tucson has 5.9 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents, said Jennifer Psillas, the project manager for the Parks and Recreation department. But Psillas said they do not include private parks, as Sahuarita does, so the number is higher.
According to a 2019 National Recreation and Park Association report, the median acreage of parkland per 1,000 residents for populations bases from 20,000 to 49,999 is 9.6 acres. For jurisdictions classified as towns, the median acreage of parkland is 8.8 acres per 1,000 residents.
The NRPA report said there is no standard acreage level despite acreage per population being accepted as a method determining whether a community has enough parkland and can vary widely due to a community's history, demographics, culture and density.
Bankhead said that each community is different and needs to do what is right for themselves. A national standard isn't necessarily the best practice anymore, she said.
The proposed revisions to the manual would only apply to subdivisions developing residential areas, but if the council approves them, it would reduce the amount of space developers are required to use for building parks and recreation areas, Smejkal said.
Bankhead said town staff will make a recommendation to the council Monday and it will be the council's decision whether to set a different standard.