The fate of the historic Steam Pump Ranch once again hangs in the balance, as the town of Oro Valley considers how - or even if - the site should be commercially developed.

On Feb. 3, the seven-member town Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously denied a request to rezone the 15-acre site at Oracle Road and Hanley Boulevard for a high-density commercial development that would include auto service and fast-food businesses.

In an emotionally charged session, commissioner Ken Kinared called for the town to purchase the site of the 1870s cattle ranch, a historic watering hole and stagecoach stop.

"It was designated as open space and I think there was wisdom in the General Plan designating it for that purpose," he said. "It would make a wonderful cultural or heritage center."

The commission's recommendation to deny the rezoning from rural residential (R1-144) to regional commercial (C-2), which now goes to the Oro Valley Town Council, specifically requested that the council explore acquiring the site, he said.

If the council takes the advice of its Planning and Zoning Commission, it could have help from Pima County.

Last month, the county allocated $2 million to purchase and protect Steam Pump Ranch as part of its upcoming bond election on May 18.

"The ranch headquarters, its associated buildings, mature trees, and rural historic setting present an integrated historic ranch complex and environment that retains much of its integrity," county Administrator Chuck Huckelberry wrote in a Jan. 23 letter to town staff asking Oro Valley to deny the rezoning and preserve an "irreplaceable historic property, and the only site that can convey Oro Valley's earliest pioneer origins."

Other letters urging denial included one from Dr. Paul Fish, chair of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan Cultural and Historical Resource Technical Advisory Team, Dr. William S. Collins, of the State Historic Preservation Office, and The Land Conservation Committee, a local ad-hoc preservation group that has made saving Steam Pump Ranch its top priority.

"There are certain core values in the town that the citizens want to save this property and they want to do it in the right way without harming the property or the developer, but the plan represented Tuesday was unacceptable, as proven by the Planning and Zoning Commission," said TLCC spokesman Dick Eggerding. " I have every hope that this can be worked out. We need to save this property. The best possible outcome would be for the town to acquire this property."

The historic core of the site is a 4.5-acre parcel with 11 structures, including the 1870s pump and ranch houses and a group of 1930s structures built by Pioneer Hotel manager John Procter, grandfather of the current owners, John and Henry Lieber.

On Dec. 31, 2003, real estate appraiser and developer Mike J. Naifeh and his partners Eric and Shalom Laytin, who own the local auto service firm Brake Masters, purchased six of the 15 acres for $500,000, including the site's historic core. A memorandum of conditional lien stipulates that the sale is conditional on the town rezoning the property.

The new plan, a significant departure from an earlier, village-square concept would grade 90 percent of the existing rural ranch setting to accommodate a strip development of 14 new buildings and parking spaces throughout the site.

In an interview, Naifeh said he threw out the village-square concept because of feedback from potential tenants requesting storefront parking for patrons. "Customer convenience, that was the issue," he said. "The users motivated a change in the plan."

The developer said proposed uses for the site include offices, retail stores, restaurants, a Brake Masters auto service center, possibly a fast-food outlet and a two-story office building. The plan sets aside two acres for three of the 1870s structures, less than half of the 4.5-acre core requested by staff, but does preserve about 45 mature trees native to the property.

Town planner Bayer Vella said that, as proposed, the plan had the same or more intensive use than any local Walgreens, the Safeway shopping plaza or Rooney Ranch.

"Why is (auto and fast food) the highest and best use for this prime real estate?" Commissioner Robert Krenkowitz asked the developer.

"My financial partners need a location in Oro Valley. Without them we wouldn't be here today," Naifeh said. "There's a demand for this type of use, that's why it's the highest and best use."

Krenkowitz then asked the developer why he chose not to preserve the 4.5-acre core of the historic site.

"It would eviscerate the economic ability of this property to be feasible," Naifeh answered.

R. Brooks Jeffery, coordinator of preservation studies with the University of Arizona College of Architecture, hired by the town to assess the property, recommended preserving the entire setting as a historic district.

"This is a unique site," he told the zoning commission. "It needs to have unique land uses." Such uses might include a civic or cultural center or creating a destination experience to promote heritage tourism.

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