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Oct 22, 2013 9:32 PM by Nathan O'Neal

Marana looks to end 99-year agreement to lease Tortolita Preserve

MARANA - Town officials hope to end a 99-year lease agreement early to effectively give back the Tortolita Preserve to the state. However, neighbors living in the area worry that could compromise the future of the land and lead to unwanted development.

The preserve was created 13 years ago to limit the development of Dove Mountain. The Town of Marana entered a 99-year lease agreement with the state and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to help protect the Pygmy Owl -- which was on the endangered species list at the time.

The owl has since been taken off the endangered species list and now the town is exploring its options.

Don Brown bought his home near the preserve nearly five years ago. It was the beauty that the Tortolita Preserve provides for his home that sealed the deal.

"I feel violated, I really do," Brown said.

He's upset because he moved near the preserve because he was under the impression that the land would remain untouched.

"We called before I made the offer on that house... we called the Town of Marana ... talked to the planning department... asked 'was this lease for real?' and they said 'yes...it's good for the 99 years'," Brown said.

The town originally agreed to lease the 2,400 acre parcel of land in hopes of protecting the endangered Pygmy Owl. Now that the animal has been taken off that list, town officials say it's racking up a huge bill for Marana taxpayers: nearly $121 million paid out of the general fund over the extent of the contract.

"Parks and police are two of the very important things that are paid for through the general fund and if this lease stays in tact the way it is now, as time moves forward, it's just going to become more and more of a burden," said Rodney Camplbell, a Marana spokesman.

If the town does get out of the contract, it's the state that will decide the fate of the land, that's no different when the lease expires on its own.

"And at the end of the lease, we don't have any control over what happens to the land," Campbell said.

As for Brown, his biggest fear is that the Tortolita Preserve could be the next target for developers -- that's something he never signed up for.

"The preserve is part of the beauty of Dove Mountain and it would change the nature of it entirely, and I think it's going to affect all our home prices if it does happen," Brown said.

This isn't a done deal yet. The state land department still has to give the green light to indicate that a change to the lease agreement is even possible.

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