Ryan Stanton, rstanton@ExplorerNews.com

More than $100 million worth of dirt has changed hands in northern Marana since January.

That's about five times higher than the amount of land bought by investors and developers there in 2004, according to Arizona Land Advisors, a local real estate company that represents the owners of about 3,000 acres in northern Marana.

Arizona Land Advisors has developed a new high-tech mapping system to track those sales and keep tabs on the hottest real estate market in Pima County, said Will White, the company's senior agent in Tucson who specializes in land sales to homebuilders and investors.

"We're involved in a large amount of land transactions that are happening up there, most of them that are happening this year just in 2005 alone," White said. "The most exciting part of Marana is that you've got so many projects that are underway that weren't even being planned in 2004. Probably 70 percent of our day is spent on projects up there."

White has brokered more than $80 million in the past two years, mostly in northern Marana, Sahuarita and southeast Pima County. He recently assisted a Mesa firm in purchasing two large properties in northern Marana, one of which could be the site of a future shopping mall.

The Cardon Group is closing its $16.5 million purchase of a 205-acre farm site near Marana Road and Interstate 10 this month. The group bought 392 acres of Marana farmland at the southwest corner of Hardin and Luckett roads for $7.2 million in August.

Escalating land prices haven't driven away buyers like the Cardon Group, but whether the same level of sales will continue into 2006 is unknown. The Cardon Group isn't the only client of Arizona Land Advisors bullish about the future of Marana, though.

Developer Mike Zipprich acquired about 1,895 acres of desert land along the east side of I-10 in northern Marana where he plans to erect as many as 7,000 new homes. Ron McRae of the McRae Group of Companies has invested in about 200 acres at Kirby Hughes and Luckett roads.

Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat said the booming real estate market is a sign of investor confidence in Marana.

"What we're seeing now is a precursor to the development that will be coming and it will be really interesting to see those properties become entitled and developed and see the vertical nature of what they've done," he said. "A lot of the land that's being purchased is being purchased because they have an expectation that they're going to develop in a way that's good for the community and good for the developer."

While it's reasonable to question whether the market will hold, Reuwsaat said several developers are confident Marana has nothing to worry about.

"There's a strong belief that even if there's somewhat of a downturn in the economy, because of what we've put together here, Marana will be fine," he said.

A local realtor recently told the town that his clients are so impressed with Marana's vision that they've received approval from a group of 10 different developers, builders and investors to secure as much land in Marana as possible. The group is primarily based in New Jersey, said Bob Storie, of Long Realty in Tucson.

"They recognize that the future is in Arizona and not New Jersey," Storie wrote in a Sept. 29 e-mail to Mayor Ed Honea. "They were so impressed with your presentation, vision and energy that they want Marana to be the principal center for their activities in Arizona."

Storie, a past president of the Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association, has been in discussions with Greg Wexler of Southwest Value Partners regarding the land north of the new municipal complex. He said his clients are interested in developing a wide range of building types, both commercial and residential.

"These guys are serious, they're very excited about the future of Marana and this will be a good place to work," he said, also noting the town's efforts to plan for the future. "They're not being flippant about it and they're not looking to build an empire. They just have a thought of what the town will look like 10 and 20 years out, and it isn't what most people think of as Marana."

White, of Arizona Land Advisors, said his company hopes to stay on top of the roiling land rush as more developers and investors look to break into Marana. His brokerage firm plans to stay ahead of the competition with its cutting-edge mapping technology and databases that are a result of more than a decade of data collection.

"It's definitely giving us an edge because Tucson just really hasn't seen a lot of technology in the land brokerage business and most of our clients going forward really need this technology put together for them," White said. "They need all the data, they want their project mapped, they want to be here consistently getting updates on what's going on, they want to know when these projects are coming out of the ground.

"A large core of our business is with the homebuilders, too, and the homebuilders are here finding out when these projects are going to be ready."

Headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona Land Advisors is part of an operation that has six offices across the United States and four more expected by 2006. A video conference room inside the company's sixth-floor office on Broadway Boulevard offers clients a whirling, bird's eye view of the development picking up in Marana.

"It's going to be very exciting up in Marana because all the infrastructure is going to be brand new, all of these communities coming out are going to be brand new, they're going to offer a lot of amenities," White said. "Obviously, the new town hall that you've seen is just beautiful. It's just an exciting area. I would say that it's going to be one of the most exciting areas - within the next five years - in all of Pima County."

The company's database allows agents to quickly access more than 250,000 records on property data, contacts and land sales. A quick click to the company's Web site pulls up detailed information about different land ownerships, including which partnerships are doing business with each other.

"We have that for almost every single land parcel in Pima County already identified so it's a great resource for our clients to come in here and get this information quickly," White said.

The company uses the latest data to show its clients which specific blocks of a project are available for development. Color-coded maps show which developments are conceptual, pending or already active.

"If we're sitting in here with our homebuilders, we can actually go down to the exact pieces they're going to be talking about buying and no one else in Tucson that we've seen has really been able to produce these kind of overlays and data," White said. "They could say, 'Well, what's the latest in Sanders Grove?' And then we can go ahead and pull up Sanders Grove and it just shows how all this blends in.

"Most of our land owners really like this because they know when we're out marketing their property that we're doing it first class with this kind of technology," White added. "The land business is really changing, so our clients expect more information than they ever had before and this allows them to get into this conference room and, in 30 minutes, be totally up-to-date on the market."

White said he has been working with homebuilders from the Phoenix area who are especially interested in expanding their Arizona operations into the Tucson area.

"We really are excited about the next wave of the development up here because we're going to be involved in most of the projects in the northern part of Marana," he said. "We're getting ready for our next round of sales to other investors. Over the next five years, we have a bunch of work to do up there."

Master-planned communities are expected to rise from the farm fields of northern Marana, quickly increasing the value of adjacent properties. Several land owners might be betting on those odds as they continue to hold their properties, such as California-based PVC Properties, which owns about 230 acres near Marana and Wentz roads.

"They bought those in 1998 and now there's a master-planned community right across the street from them, so that should be under construction at some point in the future," White said. "The expectation is that this area will grow pretty rapidly and these properties will be worth substantially more three to five years down the line."

Vice Mayor Herb Kai, whose family owns more than 1,000 acres, also is holding onto his property, which he thinks will be worth more once other master-planned communities are developed. The proposed Zipprich Project on the east side of I-10 calls for creating a new interchange, which was recently added to the town's transportation plans and could increase the value of Kai's property.

"It looks like we're going to be the beneficiaries on the west side where it's going to drop off. That kind of lands right in the middle of our property," Kai said. "We think when the time's right, especially with Sanders Grove coming on and everything, we'll probably be next in line after Sanders Grove and we envision auto malls, a hospital and medical office buildings."

White said the farm fields of northern Marana are some of the few available lands in the Metro Tucson area and continue to drive the market. But whether farmers decide in 2006 that homes are a more profitable crop than cotton remains to be seen.

"You have Marana where it's so exciting and all these properties have changed hands that now we may be into another period where a lot of property will not change hands for a while until the next generation of sales come through," White said. "It went real fast and furious and it may slow down as far as land sales go. I don't think the market will slow down, but I just think once you go through a whole cycle of land getting sold and bought that those new owners will hold that property for another few years. That's where we might be headed up there."

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