The war against sprawl, II

It's owls against developers in Arizona's Oro Valley.


Susan Zakin
January 22, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

Esther Underwood sits under a striped umbrella next to the golf course at the Sheraton El Conquistador Country Club in Oro Valley, Ariz. Beyond the glittery green lies a postcard view of a nearby mountain range. It is a perfect 70 degrees here in the fastest-growing town in Arizona, where life is good and real estate professionals like Underwood are used to running the show.

"I no longer have respect for that woman," says Underwood, speaking rather more gently than she has in screaming matches captured by local television cameras recently. "Nancy Young Wright is no longer devoted to her children. That's not to say she's a bad mother, but I think her causes have gotten away from her."

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Harsh words, perhaps, but Nancy Young Wright is getting used to it. Last year, shortly after her election to the local School Board, Young Wright became the snake in the suburban paradise of Oro Valley by opposing construction of a new high school in an ironwood forest that is habitat for the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, one of the most endangered birds in the United States. Soon after she went public with her opposition, the school district was hauled into court by the Tucson-based Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, the environmental movement's most aggressive young turks, and Defenders of Wildlife, a more staid Washington, D.C., group that has nonetheless been clear in its advocacy for endangered species.

The pygmy owl case is emblematic of the country's ambivalence over its all-too-manifest middle-class destiny. The ur-suburb of Oro Valley may seem an unlikely focus for the nation's most aggressive environmental group. But the Southwest Center was founded by children of an earlier incarnation of American suburbs. Peter Galvin, 33, grew up in Framingham, Mass., where he says America's first mall was built practically in his backyard. "When I was little, we played cowboys and Indians in this forest," Galvin remembers. "Then one day, a road was bulldozed. We threw bricks through the windows of the bulldozers and poured sugar in the gas tanks. But when the development went too far, we gave up."

The culture that spawned the pygmy owl conflict is something new, though. Oro Valley is a self-sufficient island quite different from the Cheeveresque 'burbs of the 1950s and '60s. Here in the suburbs of the 1990s, no one, not even the male breadwinners, has to go to "the city." Few of the moms work and the common denominator is newly achieved affluence. Oro Valley's definition of paradise has six golf courses and about 25,000 people, and the average home price is $170,000. The harmony between developers and local government is symbolized by the fact that the street sign for Town Hall is on the same tasteful, color-coordinated frame as the signs for Estes Homes and U.S. Homes. Perhaps not surprisingly, 94 percent of the population is Anglo.

All the harmony makes the conflict over the pygmy owl more incongruous. In fact, the two women most visibly at loggerheads appear similar if you look at the mere facts of their lives. Underwood, a trim, 45-year-old real estate agent whose husband owns one of Arizona's largest landscaping companies, is the daughter of Syrian immigrants who were "dirt poor" in Nebraska farm country. Nancy Young Wright, 38, is a refugee from the wide-open spaces of eastern New Mexico, arguably the last, worst place, an unreconstructed bastion of conservatism, cattle and hard times. They're both happy with their ascent to Oro Valley; what differs is what they want to do here now that they've arrived.

By some accounts, the controversy isn't about owls, but schoolchildren. The Amphitheater School District operates two high schools: Canada del Oro, nestled at the base of the high, stunning Catalina mountain range, and Amphitheater High School, located in a flatland working-class district of Tucson. Rapid growth has caused overcrowding at Canada del Oro High School, which district officials report is within 18 students of its capacity of 2,800. Yet the school offers a staggering range of extracurricular activities and families maneuver to send their kids there.

While Canada del Oro stuffs kids into portable classrooms, the less swank Amphitheater High School is down 500 students, according to district figures. Amphi High could be at least a temporary haven for kids who are bursting out of Canada del Oro's seams. The problem is that Oro Valley parents don't want to send their kids there. It's a familiar story of class and ethnicity, but Arizona's development boom gives it a modern twist. This was the epicenter of the savings and loan crisis, remember: The magnificently named Conley Wolfswinkel, a former associate of jailed Phoenix mega-financier Charles Keating and a convicted felon himself, owns one of Oro Valley's biggest housing developments.

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So the conflict over pygmy owls, schoolchildren, ethnicity and class is also about real estate. After plans for the new high school were leaked to the press in January 1997, the district's real estate dealings came under scrutiny. Its real estate broker, Bill Arnold, a politically connected wheeler-dealer who had made more than $150,000 in eight deals for the district totaling $2.5 million, was criticized for paying above-market prices for the school land. He also was sued, unsuccessfully, for failing to get an appraisal for the high school site, a routine procedure required by most school districts.

And critics saw the school site as an attempt to foster what is called "leapfrog" development. As its original land base has been built out, Oro Valley has been aggressive about "annexing" new land -- sort of like a hostile takeover by a municipality. It has approximately doubled in size since 1990. By building the school on the edge of Tortolita, a new town incorporated by anti-development environmentalists that Oro Valley is trying to annex, the district would be bringing in wider roads, more utilities -- and, in short order, more development, say critics.

But the district has powerful allies. Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe ushered board members into a meeting with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service chief Jamie Clark to assuage environmental concerns, and the new school began to look like a sure thing. But nobody bargained for national attention. Not long after the district-funded lobbying trip, the environmentalists sued. Tucson federal judge Frank Zapata ruled in favor of the district last May, citing the fact that a pygmy owl had been seen near the site, but not on it. Environmentalists appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which is expected to hand down a ruling any day now.

The School Board didn't wait for its day in court. Last spring, despite the fact that the lawsuit was moving forward, the board ordered construction to begin. Bulldozers and cactus "movers" arrived at the school site, along with Esther Underwood and the Yellow Ribbon Mothers, pro-construction advocates who celebrated the groundbreaking with sparkling apple cider. When Nancy Young Wright arrived, she and Underwood got into a screaming match, and the pygmy owl controversy became the Battle of the Moms. Judge Zapata ordered the work stopped.

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Now the school site, one of the densest stands of ironwood and barrel cactus in the Sonoran desert, stands like a monument to the ragged edge of sprawl. A dozen palo verde trees and saguaro cactuses -- the huge tree-like cactus whose arms veer off in unpredictable directions -- sit in wooden boxes as if ready to provide landscaping for a bank or shopping mall. The remaining 70 acres is still green and lush. Ironwood trees bloom purple in the spring and the security guard hired by the district sees bobcats cross the two-lane road in the early morning hours. To complicate matters further, another pygmy owl was reportedly spotted near the site after Zapata's ruling. And while, again, the owl didn't roost on the school property, the issue is preserving what little of the owl's natural habitat is left so the species can be recovered.

The appeals court will decide the pygmy owl case any day now. But the district's troubles are not over. If environmentalists lose, Peter Galvin of the Southwest Center plans to bring another lawsuit based on the recently sighted owl. The Southwest Center recently launched a much broader assault, suing to force the Army Corps of Engineers to require wetlands permits under the federal Clean Water Act from anyone developing near an arroyo. This suit could affect the majority of natural desert in the expanding Sunbelt and have an impact in wetlands throughout the country as well. It marks the first time the environmental movement has truly engaged the biggest issue of all: the expanding U.S. population's effect on other species. And this is the ultimate zero-sum game.

As the sophisticated children of the suburbs gird themselves for a prolonged battle, Nancy Young Wright is caught in the middle, a lonely liberal agonizing over Esther Underwood's latest charge: that she is just as reluctant as her neighbors to bus her daughter to the déclassé Ampitheater High School. "I just said that I'd have to ask my daughter," said Young Wright, embarrassed by the implication that she, too, is part of the provincial snobbery of this newfangled suburb. As environmental decisions with great moral and philosophical import filter down to the backyard level, the personal becomes political in ways that 1970s feminists thought would be, well, extinct, by the millennium.

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Susan Zakin

Susan Zakin is the author of "Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement" (Penguin 1995) and a former political columnist for Sports Afield magazine.

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