Yuma Ag and You: Planning, zoning and the land

Bobbi Stevenson-McDermott                   October 30, 2016 publication

What a beautiful time of the year! While the temperatures are warmer than usual for the end of October, the vegetable crops are growing by leaps and bounds in our fields. Hopefully the consumers of these crops are looking forward to the plentiful variety of fresh vegetables and the markets will be strong.

An article this week in the Yuma Sun addressed the issue of promoting ‘infill’ development within neighborhoods, both in the city and county. As a land use planner and knowledgeable about soils, it has been painful to watch prime farmland become urban and industrial properties over the past 40 years. When I came to Yuma in 1969, there was no planning and zoning other than ‘It’s my land and I am going to do what I want with it, and if you don’t like it, Tough!’

As time went on, it became obvious that some sort of planning was needed to make sure that services such as water, power, sewer, roads and trash pickup could be could be accomplished. Prior to the adoption of the first ordinances concerning land use, there were a large number of speculative rezoning of property to industrial or urban uses. Over the years, many of these properties continue to sit, never being developed.

What happened instead is what is called ‘leap-frog’ development. Land owners would be approved for the development of non-contiguous parcels, creating the need for more water lines, more power lines, more roads and stretching law and fire services.

In addition, there was little attention paid to the soils where the new construction was being done. While the soils in Yuma and Gila Valleys are great for production of crops, many are unsuited for foundations for buildings, roads and sidewalks, require special engineering for water and sewer lines. Many of the soils are heavy clays, which react to water like a sponge. When you first wet a sponge, it swells to twice or greater its size; when it dries, it returns to its original size. This same action can take place under the foundation of your house, block wall, patio or pool. As you drive through the subdivisions in the valley, you can see the stair–step cracks in the walls. Looking at roof lines, many are wavy and not straight, often caused by shifting foundations.

Most of the soils problems can be corrected but it takes planning and money. Instead of building on the clay soil, the foundation area can be excavated to a depth of two feet and the hole filled with sand, a soil with no shrink-swell properties. The foundation is then poured on the sand and the clay beneath the sand wets and dries, the foundation moves as a unit. While the areas in the valleys of high water table are reduced due to low flows in the Colorado and Gila Rivers, there are still areas where wet soils cause problems, often for buried utilities.

I was pleased to see that one of our towns revoked a rezoning for housing on a property because no work had been done within a set time. I would like to see all rezoning have a specific limit, and if substantial progress is not done by that time, the property would revert to the original zoning, often agriculture.

A development timeliness assessment process was created to help planners determine whether it makes sense to approve rezoning. Some of the criteria are: is the parcel adjoining already developed land; is water, sewer, power and other infrastructure already available; are the soils prime farmlands: are the soils suitable for the planned development; and is the planned use compatible with the adjoining land uses.

Infill with compatible development will prevent more urban sprawl, reducing costs for taxpayers and local governments. Soils information is available for free at the local Natural Resources Conservation Service office or at WEB Soil Survey on the world-wide web. Included in the information available are the limitations of the soils for development, foundations, sewer systems, roads, corrosivety to pipes and concrete; water penetration rates; wind erosion potential and many engineering capabilities used in design formulas. This information is FREE. The mantra in many business and real estate dealings is ‘Let the buyer beware.’ Check out the available resources to make sound planning decisions.