Plans are underway to level several historic properties on the 15-acre Steam Pump Ranch, site of the only watering hole between Tucson and Camp Grant for ranchers, stage coach travelers and prospectors during the late 1800s.

Founders Business Park LLC is seeking to rezone the property from one home per three acres to a mixed use commercial complex that would include a two-story office building, two fast-food restaurants, shops and an auto service store.

The request is to be presented to the Oro Valley Planning and Zoning Commission in either January or February, said Mark Hanshaw, business practice manager with ARCADIS G&M Inc., consultants on the project located south of Diamond Ventures' proposed Steam Pump Village. The project is a 460,000 square-foot mix of restaurant, retail, entertainment and office uses near Catalina State Park. Shared access would be established between the two projects.

Based on recommendations from SWCA Inc., environmental consultants hired to conduct an inventory of historic projects on the site, only the building that once housed the steam pump for which the site was named and an associated water tank foundation would be preserved.

The other properties, including the homes of former owners George Pusch, John Proctor and John Leiber would be destroyed because alterations over the years have "compromised the integrity of the design, materials and feeling of the buildings" or because they have deteriorated to a state of disrepair, according to the SWCA report.

The study was required because the ranch is recognized as an historic site in both Oro Valley's General Plan and Pima County's Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

The site is significant because it contained one of the first steam pumps used in the Arizona Territory for pumping ground water into tanks for travelers and is representative of early homesteads and ranching life in Arizona during that period.

"Within the broader context of national history, the site is an example of frontier entrepreneurialism where technology was harnessed to allow successful settlement in an otherwise dangerous and harsh environment," the report notes.

Pusch, for whom Pusch Ridge and Pusch Peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains are named, was a former butcher who became a prosperous cattle rancher and businessman. He and a Swiss friend, John Zellweger, established Steam Pump Ranch in the mid 1870s.

John Proctor, owner of the former Pioneer Hotel and a Valley National Bank director, bought the ranch in 1933 from Pusch's widow, Mathilda. Proctor died in 1972 at the age of 84. Two of his grandsons, John and Henry Leiber, acquired title to the property in 1976. They still operate boarding stables on the site.

The sale of the property to Founders Business Park is contingent on the rezoning, Hanshaw said, adding that the purchase would be accomplished in phases as development occurs.

Town planners would prefer that the site be retained as low density residential and are seeking evaluations from the state and private consultants to determine whether more than just the two sites marked for preservation are worth saving as well, said Bayer Vella, principal planner for Oro Valley.

"We're very aware of the sensitivity of the issue," Hanshaw said, "but we feel we're dealing with it in an appropriate manner." He emphasized that the project is just in the early planning stage.

Another project shaping up to be a fairly controversial proposal has to do with the proposed construction of apartments at the southeast corner of Lambert Lane and La Canada Drive.

It's not often that an Oro Valley planning advisory board is so frank as to tell a developer he might as well wad up his plans and throw them in the trash for all they're worth.

That's essentially what the Development Review Board did Nov. 14 in a preliminary review of plans by the Beztak Cos. to build 138 two and three-story apartments and develop 31,000 square feet of commercial space on 13 acres at the southeast corner of Lambert Lane and La Canada Drive.

A development plan calling for nearly 116,000 square feet of commercial uses on the site was approved by the Town Council in February 2000. Last year, plans were approved for a 15,000 square-foot Osco Drug store and earlier this year plans were approved for a 4,200 square-foot Bank One branch with a drive-through teller. Both are in operation now.

Initially the idea was to develop the site as an upscale commercial project with shops, a specialty grocery store as anchor, and offices.

Initial renderings "were very appealing," said Jim Vosberg, DRB chairman.

However, the developers struck out in efforts to find an anchor tenant and after more than a year of trying, turned to the apartment development as an alternative.

One DRB member at the Nov. 14 meeting said the renderings reminded him of barracks he stayed in during World War II. Others said they were disappointed by proposals to place apartments on a corner in an area where the three other corners have commercial uses, by the intensity of the development which would be dumping so many cars out on Lambert and La Canada, and by the lack of sufficient buffers between the project and nearby residential areas.

Board members also were angry about being told the proposal had the support of residents in the area when opponents such as Connie Culver, president of the Autumn Hill Homeowner Association and board member of Canada Hills Community Association, followed the developer's presentation to speak out against the plans.

Residents are concerned about tripling densities in the area and the dumping of huge amounts of traffic out on Lambert Lane, Culver said, adding "I don't want to live in the middle of an Osco parking lot."

Residents also are opposed to leveling a hill on the site to put an entrance in at Lambert Lane.

"Maybe their plan is to carve up the hill to make it look so hideous that anything they do would look attractive," Culver said.

Town planners have suggested changes to improve the screening between commercial and residential areas, which they describe as "not pedestrian friendly," single-story units along the southern boundary abutting the Villages of La Canada and a better integration of residential and commercial uses.

The DRB is scheduled to review revised proposals at a Dec. 10 meeting.

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