Plan Tucson Contains Important Guidelines Impacting Your Property Rights

I have read the entire 246-page general plan the City of Tucson will ask Tucson voters to ratify in November of 2013, called “Plan Tucson” - it is an impressive document. All city staff who had a hand in creating it should be congratulated on a job well done.

 Plan Tucson's "Future Growth Scenario Map." Click the image to see a full copy in draft form.

Plan Tucson's "Future Growth Scenario Map." Click the image to see a full copy in draft form.

Plan Tucson is a true expression of a general plan for the City of Tucson’s growth in the next ten years, but property owners should note how the new guidelines in the plan will impact their rights.

The document’s rhythm is easy to grasp. The plan begins with a broad explanation of Tucson’s current state of affairs as a city, builds throughout a consistent theme that Tucson has many disparate but effective planning elements needing integration, and proposes in conclusion a new policy-making framework to tie together what the city currently does well with new initiatives in a way that hopefully achieves Plan Tucson’s overarching goal of future smarter and neighborhood-scale growth.

Plan Tucson summarizes its purpose on Page 1.2:

Plan Tucson is a long-term policy document intended to guide decisions affecting elements that shape the city, such as housing, jobs, land use, transportation, water, and energy resources. [...] Used to best advantage, the Plan provides both a place to start and a place to end for the public, staff, and decision makers involved in developing or approving actions. That is, those proposing actions should do so with the Plan Tucson goals and policies in mind, and those reviewing proposed actions should assess whether the actions do in fact advance the Plan’s goals and policies.
— Plan Tucson, Page 1.2

The individual sections of Plan Tucson in Chapter 3, “Focus Areas and Policies,” all contain specific goals city planners will use to evaluate future Tucson development. The sections highlight city planning efforts already underway, some of which are described in Plan Tucson as “functional plans.” Functional plans are department-level guides for allocating city resources in developing, for example, public safety. water, and transit facilities or infrastructure. One already-existing functional plan is the “Major Streets and Routes Plan,” which impacts private development when developers are required to connect projects to the public roadways.

 An example of a specific plan.

An example of a specific plan.

Plan Tucson does not provide planning detail down to the individual parcel level, but it will substantially impact individual property owners. In addition to the functional plans city departments create, Tucson’s 53 “specific plans” dictate development within the geographic areas those specific plans cover. Plan Tucson promotes creation of more and more-integrated specific plans, and those changes must all fit within the framework of Plan Tucson.

One fair criticism of Plan Tucson is it creates an additional level of planning bureaucracy with which developers did not previously have to contend. Buried in the plan (the page containing Exhibit LT-11, page 3.150, is not even included in the index) is Exhibit LT-11, titled “Guidelines for Development Review.” These new Guidelines will govern planning decisions for parcels not already covered by one of the 53 extant specific plans.

The guidelines, unfortunately, are broad enough to allow planners to dictate by whimsy requirements that may significantly impair property values. For example, one guideline states the city should, “[s]upport methods to conserve and enhance habitat when development occurs.” P. 3.151; LT 28.1.17. Plan Tucson includes the following through-the-looking-glass instructions to city staff:

Terminology and action words used in the Guidelines reflect varying levels of policy commitment, such as very strong (assure, require, preserve, protect, promote); situational and/ or conditional (consider); and basic commitment (encourage, foster). Verbs are intended to convey this varying level of commitment. For example, the word support is generally used in policy statements to designate desired land use applications or actions. The verb consider suggests conditional support, while the verbs encourage or foster describe a recommended action or condition that City staff is not in a position to require. The verb promote is used in a more general way to express a strong City or agency commitment to a proposed concept, program, or activity that may not directly relate to land use and development procedures.
— Plan Tucson, Page 3.150
 Plan Tucson is not all seashells and balloons. It is also rainbows. Plan Tucson, Page 4.3.

Plan Tucson is not all seashells and balloons. It is also rainbows. Plan Tucson, Page 4.3.

If Tucson voters approve Plan Tucson, developers will be faced with the prospect of city planners reviewing projects based on the new Unified Development Code, general Plan Tucson policies, relevant functional plans, the separate City of Tucson Design Guidelines Manual, and either a specific plan or these new, jumbled Guidelines for Development Review. If a city planner tells you to refer to the guidelines, be sure to ask whether he or she is referring to the “Design Guidelines Manual” or the “Guidelines for Development Review.”

I predict these new Guidelines for Development Review will become a significant obstacle to some common-sense developments and will injure some private property owners - whether those owners are developing property for profit or simply for their own enjoyment. Plan Tucson is a tremendous achievement for the city as a whole, but be sure to protect your individual rights from the incursions resulting from these broad, new planning hurdles.