Through the 682-foot entrance tunnel that transports visitors from another world into a lush green mountain valley, the community of Saguaro Ranch is beginning to take shape inside this private desert enclave.

They've blasted their way through the mountain, they're finishing up utility work, they've laid a complex network of roads and now they're starting to build homes.

"It's like you're 1,000 miles away when you're on the other side of that tunnel," said Stephen Phinny, Saguaro Ranch's president and chief executive officer. "It's every bit as nice as I anticipated. It really has a great feel to it and I think it's very dramatic."

Phinny's own personal home is one of two lots now underway where about six more are expected to sprout this fall. Former NHL hockey player Paul Ranheim, who's planning to build and sell several homes in Saguaro Ranch, beat him to the punch.

"He got the first and I was hot on his heels," said Phinny, who chose to move from Colorado to build this community where saguaro cacti will likely outnumber any future human inhabitants for many years to come.

With a modest 180 single-family luxury homes planned in four phases, 80 percent of Saguaro Ranch's 1,035 acres will remain undisturbed, as Phinny has taken measures to preserve the natural desert. Homeowners are allowed to disturb no more than 20 percent of their lots, which range from four to five acres. The development is on the north end of the recently constructed tunnel where Thornydale Road hits the Tortolita Mountains in Marana.

Phinny's goal from the beginning has been to establish some progressive ground rules by which development blends with the environment, creating a community that reflects a sense of respect for both nature and the area's history - the two main themes of Saguaro Ranch.

"I've always had a real love for the desert; it's just incredibly beautiful," explained Phinny, who began planning the project five years ago and broke ground on construction in November 2003. "I think people are seeing that we have done what we said we would do and we have been good stewards and continue to be good stewards of the land."

Saguaro Ranch was recently featured in Estates West magazine, America West Farm & Ranch and Tucson Lifestyle. It's also highlighted in this month's Desert Living as one of the top 10 places in Arizona (and the only place in the Tucson region) "to scoop up your piece of the dream before it's too late."

"We're very excited to see all the hard work begin to pay off," Phinny said. "We love to show off our project, and I think we're all very proud of it."

Staying true to Phinny's environmentally sensitive credo, the soil-cement roads winding through Saguaro Ranch are made entirely of recycled materials and rammed earth from excavating the entrance tunnel. Laying asphalt would probably cost half as much, but that didn't fit the developer's idea of Saguaro Ranch. More than 250 saguaros were transplanted throughout the development while roads were laid, and damage to other native plants such as barrel cacti and cholla were minimized.

"There are dramatically less expensive ways to complete the infrastructure and the work that we've done here, but I don't think there are better ways," Phinny said. "We've really worked very, very hard to preserve the natural beauty that surrounds our property, and I think we've been successful in the process."

With all of the roads cut to follow the natural topography, there's not a single straight edge or a right angle in the project. Storm drains running along the sides of roads are buried underground and covered by hand-placed rocks. The sides of mountains that have been cut away are stained with an iron-sulfate liquid to preserve the natural desert look.

Extensive archeological studies and hydrology studies have been conducted, and onsite biologists have been working to track and tag several hundred desert tortoises.

Construction crews are working on connecting a water main at the intersection of Thornydale and Moore roads to a booster station that will take water up to a large reservoir before it's pumped to another station. The 370,000-gallon reservoir will be covered with rock and natural vegetation to conceal any evidence that the site has been disturbed. The completed project will eventually boast two reservoir sites and three to four booster stations.

With a rusted steel roof and 100-year-old leaded glass, a timeless gatehouse decorated with a rock siding and solid mesquite beams guards the entrance to the community where three towering mountain peaks greet visitors.

Mike Conlin, vice president of sales and marketing for Saguaro Ranch, said a wide range of interest in the development has come from people of varying backgrounds, including businessmen, entertainers, athletes and local Tucsonans. In the first phase of the project, already more than 30 of the 51 lots have been sold. Homes range from $1.25 million to several million dollars.

While homeowners must follow the town of Marana's building standards, they also must go through Saguaro Ranch's own design review board. Because there are no time requirements for construction, Conlin said some people may buy lots in Saguaro Ranch and sit on them five to seven years before building their homes. Lots are taped off so that during construction workers are not treading on areas that are supposed to be left undisturbed.

The view from some areas of the development stretches for miles, overlooking Tucson and the many mountain ranges that surround it. Twenty-five miles of trails will allow hikers to reach the summit of every peak in the development.

A horse ranch and a separate guest ranch that will feature 63 hotel rooms dispersed among 28 casitas are being completed as part of Phase I of the project. All residents will be members of a private club at the guest ranch, which is expected to be the primary gathering place centrally located on 22 acres.

The resort and its surrounding amenities will feature a luxury indoor theater, an outdoor amphitheater, a recording studio, an old-fashioned general store, a post office, tennis courts, swimming pools, a game room, an art barn, a library, a topnotch spa, a restaurant and a cooking school.

Artists and writers from around the world will be invited to stay at Saguaro Ranch through a visiting artists and writers program in which they'll participate in arts activities for residents and guests.

Use of automobiles will be discouraged, and a separate road system for Neighborhood Elective Vehicles will be provided. A groundbreaking event for the guest ranch is planned for February 2006, with two years to completion.

In an effort to preserve the cattle ranching era of the late 1800s and the dude ranching era of the early 1900s, a horse ranch emblematic of the Old West will allow space for equestrians to keep horses. A bunkhouse will be available for wranglers to live on the property, which also will include a riding arena.

Adding to the concept of self-sufficiency, treated wastewater from the resort will irrigate an organic farm at the bottom of the valley, where farmers will raise vegetables for the restaurant and grow herbs for the spa. With several of the best golf courses within a few miles, Phinny said residents of Saguaro Ranch will enjoy the amenities the community has to offer without living directly on a golf course.

In the meantime, while construction continues, Phinny can be found every Friday afternoon behind a smoking barbecue outside the Saguaro Ranch administrative office. There, he's cooking up lunch for everyone working onsite - from construction workers to his assistants - fostering the same warm atmosphere he plans to bring to residents of Saguaro Ranch.

"Those have been very well received," he said. "We're all having a lot of fun with those lunches."

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