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Posted: Wednesday, July 9, 2003 11:00 pm

At the heart of any battle over development in a pristine wilderness is the desire of some citizens to preserve nature and the right of a landowner to build. And in the case of the fight shaping up over the Saguaro Ranch development in the Tortolita foothills, the sheer magnitude of what's at stake is taking the debate to a new level.

As planning currently stands, the $80 million luxury development proposed north of Moore and Thornydale roads will only disturb 20 percent of the 1,033 acres that are included in the project's boundaries.

The developer says he is limiting the project to 180 homes and 14 guest "casitas," placing the homes on lots that average an unusually large five acres, and that he will be a good steward of the 80 percent of the land that remains undeveloped.

But the project also calls for blasting a hole through a hillside to create a tunnel to an exclusive enclave of million dollar homesites, livestock, an equestrian center, roads for electric cars and a "mini-resort," located in a swath of lush desert, riparian areas and Hohokam pictographs etched on rocks centuries ago.

The southern reach of the development also takes in an area the federal government has deemed critical habitat for the endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy owl.

Despite howls of outrage from environmental organizations such as Desert Watch and Defenders of Wildlife and a number of Tortolita neighbors, Stephen Phinny, the wealthy Colorado developer behind the project, said he believes Saguaro Ranch is setting a new standard in environmentally-sensitive development.

"This is a carefully thought-out concept. We can't just go in there and degrade the area and expect to move million dollar homes. We have a vested interest in preserving the beauty of the area," Phinny said. "When we finish, people are going to be pleased and amazed at the care that we've used."

Several neighbors and others concerned about the development disagree and say the rugged area is the worst possible location for development.

Until recently, the battle over the project has been fought primarily in Pima County, which had jurisdiction over most of Saguaro Ranch and had at times rejected various plans for the project before granting a tentative plat May 21.

The fight is now moving to Marana after the Marana Town Council voted unanimously July 1 to annex 680 acres that constitute the first phase of development of Saguaro Ranch.

And just as there's a lot at stake for Phinny and those concerned about the development of the beautiful bajada, there's a lot on the line for Marana and Pima County.

A preannexation agreement approved by Marana last month would have Saguaro Ranch provide $50,000 per home site sold, up to a maximum of $1 million, to Pima County for trails, roads and other improvements in the area.

Marana, which has indicated a willingness to set up a community facility district for the area and sell bonds for road improvements the developer would be required to repay, would get $1 million for "regional recreation facilities."

The Marana Unified School District would also benefit from increased tax revenue and $1,200 per lot donations from Saguaro Ranch to be used to help purchase school sites.

But if the fight that has gone on in Pima County since last year is any indication of what's in store for Marana, the town's in for protracted negotiations.

Phinny and his staff of engineers and architects have held a series of meetings in the last year with the neighbors and organizations that have expressed concern about his project. By all accounts, things started out civil between the two sides, but have become increasingly tense as Saguaro Ranch moves closer to obtaining a grading permit.

Many of the approximately 60 neighbors, concerned citizens and environmentalist who have steadfastly sought changes in the project say they were initially supportive of the development.

Tom Schramski, a Tucson psychologist whose property is next to the proposed project, says he was initially a fan of Saguaro Ranch, but he claims repeated changes by Phinny in the development have left him - and most of his neighbors - anxious about what's actually intended for the area.

"I think we saw the specifics of the development changing in the public presentations. They went from up to 90 horses to 120 (horses) with cows. They said the ranch was going to be closed during the summer and now they say it will be open year round. First the access to trails was going to be paved, and then they weren't. There are several examples like that. The changes keep going back and forth and it's just got people's anxiety so high that they have become very distrusting," Schramski said.

Phinny said that there have been some "minor" adjustments to the plans, but stresses that it's simply part of the development process and well within the development regulations set by Pima County and the other governing bodies that oversee the project.

He also disagrees with those opponents who say they were initially supportive of his project.

"The people that continue to raise issues about the project have been opposed to it from the beginning," Phinny said. "They say they want just an environmentally-friendly development, but what they really want is no development at all. And frankly, that's just not going to happen."

Tim Blowers, a neighbor of Saguaro Ranch and a member of Desert Watch, said he vehemently disagrees with Phinny's assessment of the opposition.

"The vast majority of people expressing concern about the project are not trying to shut him down. They're looking for relatively minor changes - don't spoil the viewshed by putting houses on ridge tops, don't carve up the hillsides with roads on impossible grades when you can just place them lower - that kind of thing," Blowers said.

Blowers, Schramski and others concerned with the plans for Saguaro Ranch say the flow of information from Phinny about the project has begun to taper off as the public meetings have become more heated.

"As we began asking more questions, he became less friendly. By October, it was clear that he wasn't really interested in what we had to say. We're concerned with the lack of information being provided. It's a major, major trust issue, but I don't think it's irreversible," Schramski said.

Phinny said he's bent over backwards to provide information, but refused requests by Blowers and others for digital overlays of the project and technical documents from his architects.

"They began asking for Auto CAD and other proprietary stuff. There's no way we can give that stuff to them. We've been more than reasonable and forthcoming with information they've requested, but I draw the line at proprietary information," Phinny said.

There's little doubt the neighbors and environmentalists are tough and well organized. They've compiled vast amounts of research on Saguaro Ranch and even taken to producing their own full-color contour maps of the project.

But citing what they claim is his refusal to release information, they've also played hardball with Phinny.

They have filed requests with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain e-mails and correspondences between Phinny and the service. They've showed up at the development services offices of Pima County with their own copy machine and copied reams of documents to track the county's process for the project's preliminary plat.

They've even researched his background in Colorado, calling environmentalists there who had expressed concern about Phinny's only other venture into residential development, an 810-acre development in Telluride known as Gray Head.

Blowers didn't score any points with Phinny when he submitted an admittedly doctored photo to the Marana Town Council during a public hearing on the annexation last month.

The computer-manipulated photo showed white two-story houses crowning the tops of ridges where Blowers said Phinny planned to place homes. Although Blowers told the council the houses were not representational of the single-story, stone facade homes Phinny plans to build, Phinny remains outraged that the photo was submitted.

"It's just outrageous that they would do that. It's a complete misrepresentation of what we're planning," Phinny said.

"The photo is doctored, and I told the council that. But importantly, it shows the placement of the homes on the ridges and that is one of the biggest problems with the development," Blowers said.

Phinny himself is not immune to hardball tactics. He's repeatedly pointed out to the Northwest EXPLORER that Blowers is currently facing several charges in federal court for allegedly illegally blading a road through protected land near his home.

"If people are going to be examining my credibility, they need to be looking at the other side's credibility too," Phinny said.

Blowers said he did nothing wrong in grading the road and is fighting the charges. He's angry that an unknown person has begun posting fliers in the area that detail his court problems.

Phinny, grandson of Daniel Gerber, founder of Gerber Products Co., did initially face opposition to his Gray Head development near Telluride, according to newspaper reports and interviews with Telluride officials and environmentalists.

But the project, done in partnership with Phinny's childhood friend, William Clay Ford Jr., chairman and CEO of Ford Motor, Co. seems to have been grudgingly accepted since most of the furor arose almost two years ago.

The luxury development of a limited number of homes on large lots in a pristine environment was touted as "environmentally-friendly" in much the same way that Saguaro Ranch is being promoted here, said Joan May, executive director of the Sheep Mountain Alliance, a Telluride-area environmental group.

"There was some opposition and concerns about how it would affect the elk migration patterns, but most of that has died down and the project is pretty much been accepted here," May said.

Bryan Miller, a former Telluride town council member who holds a harsh opinion of Phinny in general, said the Gray Head project near his town ended up being the size and type of development that area residents were promised it would be.

"He's like a hobby developer - way too much money, but the project didn't change any," Miller said.

Locally, a glimmer of a similar dtente may soon be on the horizon.

As the Saguaro Ranch development heads for Marana, both sides say they have a better shot at getting a fair hearing of their respective arguments in the town than they did in Pima County.

"We're excited about coming to Marana. They seem to have a sincere interest and insight into what we're trying to achieve here," Phinny said.

"I think we have a better shot of this being handled in Marana than in Pima County, Schramski said. "I think Marana is really trying to approach this in a much more positive manner. Pima county seemed to view it as a kind of hot potato that they hoped someone else would take over handling."

Leslie Liberti, Marana's environmental manager, said the town is well aware of the passionate feelings fueling the Saguaro Ranch debate, but hopes to use it's regulatory influence to steer a course that will result in a responsible development.

"We obviously can't stop development. It's private land and it's just something that's going to happen. But at the same time, the town can overlay their own perspective toward conservation and negotiate with the landowner to try and develop in a way that maintains the functioning of the ecosystem," Liberti said.

Jaret Barr, an assistant to Marana's town manager, has begun meeting with both sides to try and hammer-out a consensus.

"The approach we're taking is just sitting down with them, either individually or in small groups, and going over their concerns one by one. The first step in the process is to try and separate some of the anxiety that has developed over the project and get to the real issues at hand," Barr said. "As it stands now, there's a tremendous amount of anxiety occurring over Saguaro Ranch."

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