Don Diamond helped end the battles he long fought | What the Devil won't tell you
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What the Devil won't tell you

Don Diamond helped end the battles he long fought

Donald Diamond is dead and an era is over.

Actually, the era ended 20 years ago. Diamond both lorded over that period and helped put a stop to it. 

I’m talking about the growth wars that dominated Pima County politics for three decades. Plenty of people played a central role in creating peace. I'm talking about local environmental leader Carolyn Campbell, the late deputy county administrator Maeveen Beehan as well as s+upervisors like Ray Carroll, Raul Grijalva, Sharon Bronson and Mike Boyd. Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry was vital. There was a whole steering committee that met regularly at 8 a.m. Saturday out at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum to prove their commitment.

Much has been written about how Diamond fought to defeat environmentalists in the growth war, but we should also take this occasion to remember how he put an end to it.

Resistance to far-flung growth started in earnest with county supervisors like Ron Asta and David Yetman in the 1970s. They pit themselves against developers like Diamond, who built a fortune helping push the urban boundary further and further out into the desert.

If Roy Drachman was the king of urban sprawl and leapfrog development in Tucson, Diamond was the crown prince. Diamond had pushed developments like Rocking K Ranch and Pima Canyon Estates that either thrust Tucson’s boundaries outward or right up some of the best desert in the Catalina Foothills.

He was a developer, which means that he would get the proper permission from the right government agencies to build. He would subdivide the land and build the infrastructure. Then others would come in and build the homes.

He was a land speculator who liked a good rezoning. He would buy land with the right to build something small on it and then work to get the local governing body to rezone it so he had the rights to build something big. Then he could flip it, so he would be out the legal expense of having cut a deal with the city or the county but hold limited risk should the market turn sour. He bought low and sold high. The new land owner would be free to build what Diamond had redesigned.

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Diamond took the risk and sold certainty to a new owner who was free to pull a permit and start blading.

He was active politically and was seen as an ally and financial backer of County Supervisor Ed Moore, who had created something of a Trumpian reign of terror against the Deep State of Pima County’s civil service.

The shifting sand

I returned to Tucson in 1998 to cover Pima County and fully expected Diamond to be the environmentalist’s No. 1 enemy in the growth debate.

He was by that point operating above his corporation “Diamond Ventures,” run at the time by CEO Chris Monson.

Diamond’s team had largely had their way throughout the 1980s and early '90s. Then something changed.

What finally settled it was, frankly, a booming economy and the growth paradox. New people move to Tucson because they like the place, and then they demand it not ever change. The locals who are born here are often fine with more growth. The newbies want to close the door behind them.

And when the economy is good, voters can afford to care about the environment.

Also, there was a growing concern about the cost of growth and a rising concern that it wasn’t paying for itself in new tax revenues. That had long been the promise. It was wildly over-simplified. Some growth did. Some didn’t. It would pay for certain services but not others, public safety being chief things that growth simply did not provide the revenue to cover the cost of providing.

In the beginning of 1998, Pima County supervisors decided sprawl was a concern to be addressed and Republican Supervisor Mike Boyd called for a panel to examine growth. Boyd turned out to be the last-remaining “pro-growth” supervisor. The gig was up.

Pima County jumped into the process that would lead to the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan just as yours truly was digging in as the reporter on the county government beat.

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Ready for a fight

The conservation plan focused on scientifically identifying most vital or vulnerable parts of the desert and protecting them, while it managed the effects of the Endangered Species Act. At the same time, it was designed to push growth in the direction of less-lush parts of the desert.

Donald R. Diamond was not amused at first. He did what developers do when no-growthers push. He reared up to push back. One of the first times I interviewed Diamond was on this issue. He was ready to weigh in and throw blows. He’d be calling me regularly.

The fight was on. The battle would be joined. And then a funny thing happened on the way to total war.

There was just this little bird, though.

The cactus gerruginous pygmy owl got named to the endangered species list. With that came hundreds of square miles of critical habitat getting mapped out on the Northwest Side.

That meant headaches for developers and builders. It’s not that building shuts down. It’s that a project in critical habitat requires a plan to save more of that habitat than the project will destroy. And more of these species might have followed, meaning more critical habitat.

It doesn’t wreck growth by law but it impedes it by practice.

Property-rights groups started to fret that their land would become worthless. Then the Invisible Hand threw Tucson a curveball. Land in critical habitat didn’t get worthless. It grew more valuable.

Most of the owl’s habitat was zoned for low-density development and homeowners suddenly were living in a part of the world protected from the threat of a honking subdivision being built nearby.

Well now, rising values proved to be a dialect Diamond was fluent in.

On the other hand ... 

David Steele, co-founder of local PR firm Strategic Issues Management Group, assisted the conservation plan’s steering committee and he found Diamond holstering his weapons.

“Don was tough. But he ultimately came to realize … that conservation was good business for him in the real estate business,” Steele said.

The plan would socialize the cost of any and all future species “mitigation,” and clear the way for projects to follow. Voters approved land purchases, setting aside huge swaths of prime habitat for a “mitigation bank” that would allow for future development.

Well now. Diamond could absolutely deal with that.

“He appreciated the business certainty (of the SDCP),” Steele said. “That’s why his company participated meaningfully and substantively in the process.”

What could have been

Had Diamond opted to go to his guns at that moment, he would have had the resources to make life a lot harder on county planners and the people in the community coming together to figure out how and where Tucson’s urban footprint should grow.

The Metropolitan Tucson Chamber of Commerce could have gone all-in against the plan if the business community rose up in protest.

At the time, the Arizona Legislature was busily passing laws to knock down local protections of things like hilltop and native plant protection. Gov. Jane Dee Hull was a moderate on issues like education and health care but her State Land Department was buddy-buddy with the developer crowd.

The Southern Arizona Home Builders Association was already up in arms. Diamond and his resources could have been the 5,000 matches that started the fiery, full-scale opposition.

But Diamond didn’t go there for the one reason to inspire trust in a business man of his caliber. He could make more money with the conservation plan than without it.

Smart money

Never completely trust a guy worth north of nine figures when they tell you they are doing it “for the kids,” “for the environment,” or “for the community.” OK, maybe "never" is a bit all-encompassing.

I say always trust a business person more when they tell you that they are helping you because they see it as good business.

Moreover, developers like Diamond negotiate for a living and their greatest personal asset is their word. Backtracking and double-dealing can kill a reputation. The best do what they promise and won’t promise what they can’t do.

“He was a good-faith dealer,” Steele said. “He was pretty clear about his motivations. Getting business certainty and increasing the certainty of his projects.”

Diamond eventually wound up supporting the conservation plan and that was a huge signal to the business community that the endeavor made sense. Why would the Legislature step in and pass laws to cripple a planning process a guy like Diamond was engaged in? Why would the Chamber of Commerce lead a charge on behalf of developers when the community’s most successful land guy was substantively was substantively and meaningfully working on?

Compromise vs. common ground

At the root of the process and the plan was common ground more than compromise. Common ground and win-win gains are far better for negotiating than racehorse-by-committee "compromise." 

Common ground works differently. You must have A and you refuse to do B. I must have C and I won’t stand for D. Got any problem with E? You like E, too? Let’s do that. No, I won’t stand for D without F. You’ll give F? Deal.

If developers want access to critical habitat near Oro Valley, then they can support county-led establishment of the Ironwood Forest National Monument as a giant deposit in a mitigation bank to comply with the Endangered Species Act. If environmentalists want to prevent ranches from being turned into tile-roof jungles, they can help ranchers keep ranching.

Political negotiations these days tend to involve ultimatums demanding what the other side won’t do and refusing to do what the other side must have. The goal isn’t a deal. It’s to shatter the other side to prove it’s weak.

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Diamond sought to look for his own interests in the interest of the greater good. There hasn’t been a major rezoning battle since the plan was established. Rocking K Ranch, Pima Canyon Estates and Canoa Ranch had dominated county politics in the 10 years prior to the Conservation Plan.

The pygmy owl was delisted, yet the plan has endured.

The growth wars were effectively over.

Diamond was just one player in this process, but the role he didn’t play proved decisive.

Don Diamond is dead. Peace in the growth war remains.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is a former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things the Devil won’t.


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1 comment on this story

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15 comments
Apr 8, 2019, 5:24 am
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I never met Mr. Diamond, but I did work on election campaigns both for and against his candidates.  I could never match his prodigious donations to candidates, nor fundraise tens of thousands of dollars as he did to save Sharon Bronson’s seat on the Board of Supervisors in the last election.  He lived to a good age, one that with my afflictions I am not likely to see, and I have no intention of speaking ill of the dead.  But I am wondering about Blake Morlock’s “whole steering committee” that met regularly at the Desert Museum on Saturday mornings.  That a collection of elected officials and not-elected staff and businessmen outsiders met and presumably discussed and shaped Pima County affairs strikes me as not quite proper, certainly not transparent.  Not knowing what was discussed, or what decisions were made there, I can’t comment on whether this was a huge breach of voters’ trust, cronyism at its most blatant.  Were deals cut at the taxpayers’ expense and without their knowledge?  We’ll probably never know.
I do know that Diamond Ventures has sold a lot of land to Pima County, and I have not had any response to my Records Request to the county for the amount of taxpayer dollars spent over the last ten years to purchase Diamond Ventures properties.  Perhaps Mr. Morlock might have better luck finding out and reporting the facts.  And I do know that the County Administrator, whose Interstate 11 plan through the Avra Valley in violation of his employers’ explicit policy (BOS Resolution 2007-343, recently reaffirmed by Chairman Elias and Supervisor Bronson) is ADOT’s “recommended alternative” and includes the “Sonoran Corridor” linking I-10 and I-19.  A new I-11 will cost billions of taxpayer dollars more than improving I-10, and will ruin the communities and wildlife habitat of the Avra Valley, as well as threaten Tucson’s water by dumping emissions on the CAP settling ponds.  The “Sonoran Corridor,” which might be justified as a straight east-west road but instead drops south to provide a free access “auxiliary interstate” to the planned 3200-acre Diamond Ventures Swan Southlands/Verano development, makes one wonder just what kind of deals were struck at those Desert Museum “steering committee” meetings, and since?
The public has a right to know.  The media has a responsibility to dig out the facts and report them.  Journalism 101.

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Bureau of Land Management

Ironwood Forest National Monument is a key component of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

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