About 35 miles north of Tucson in the northern foothills of the Santa Catalina mountains lies the town of Oracle, a community that was once a bustling mining town just miles away from the Magma copper mine, the town's major lifeline.

The town's roads wind through rolling hills and tall trees, past trailer parks and stately homes tucked against huge boulders.

The high elevation, about 4,500 feet, makes the area about 10 degrees cooler than Tucson, with winter bringing a few snowfalls to the area, sometimes enough to cancel school for a day.

But some residents say the community is not the same one they called home only a couple of years ago.

It was about that time that the copper mine shut down, putting hundreds of miners out of work and forced to look for other employment.

Now, the once busy community filled with miners and their families is much quieter. Parking lots are empty. "For Sale" signs dot corners and curbs as people leave the area for better jobs, or are forced out because the bank has foreclosed.

Others have decided to stay in the area, making the long commute at early hours in the morning to jobs in Oro Valley or Tucson.

But hope is on the horizon, at least in some Oracle residents' minds. Two planned developments near the town could bring in thousands of people to the area over the next few decades.

Others in the community see the developments as an invasive nuisance into their quiet lifestyles, lifestyles they believe only Oracle can provide.

Many residents came to Oracle to escape the "rat race" as one resident said. Others came for artistic inspiration for their paintings or poetry.

Some were born and raised there and feel a certain loyalty to the tight-knit community and don't want that closeness to disappear.

Christine Baines watches her two granddaughters scamper toward a barbed wire fence to greet Lobo, a horse that looks a little wary of their presence. He obliges, but the girls become suddenly apprehensive as they stop in front of him and gaze up his long neck in wonder of his size.

"Can we pet him?" they ask their grandmother.

Baines allows the girls to touch the large animal, carefully running their hands down his soft brown neck.

Baines, who was raised in Pinal County and now lives in Oracle, has brought her daughters to Oracle's Farmers Market, held just off of the town's major thoroughfare, American Avenue.

The market is held every Saturday morning and gives locals the opportunity to sell their creations, whether it be paintings, pottery or homemade pies.

Colorful flags flap in the breeze as cars slowly navigate through the dirt parking lot.

Patrons make their way toward the large shade trees, under which vendors have staked out tables, laughing and joking with each other, scolding dogs whose noses get just a little too close for comfort to homemade cherry pies and zucchini bread.

The market is small, which seems to be the way everybody prefers. It represents the community they live in, they say. Close and friendly.

Baines loves the feel of the community, but knows times are changing.

"I know we have to develop sometime," she says. "But I have a fear of great big development."

Baines is also a member of the Oracle Land Trust, an organization interested in preserving Oracle's integrity as a small community.

"I want to have something everyone can live with, like one house at a time," she continues.

The latest development, and the largest, to be proposed near Oracle is Willow Springs Ranch. The South Village alone, which would be the first parcel of the 19,000 acres to be developed, would be the site for more than 8,000 homes and would take an estimated 20 years to build.

The site is located at the base of the Black Mountains off Highway 79 about eight miles south of Oracle.

Alex Argueta, president of the Remington Group, the developers of the land, promises the development will be innovative in that it will be built using "green" building techniques like water harvesting and solar power.

"We think there are a lot of people interested in living in a place like Willow Springs," Argueta said.

Argueta also promised to use local people to help in the construction of the homes.

"We're going to give them all the help they need to learn how to build energy-efficient homes," he said.

The Pinal County Board of Supervisors approved the rezoning for Willow Springs South Village May 16.

But a development on this scale has some Oracle residents worried about what it will do to their water supply and the integrity of their close-knit community.

Those concerns led to the organization of a group called Pinal Citizens for Sustainable Communities and a petition-signing effort to put the development up to a vote in November 2002. The effort seemed to be successful at first, with the group obtaining almost double the required amount of signatures by the July 2 deadline. The petition drive marked the second successful effort to put a large scale development on the ballot. Falcon Valley Ranch, located about 10 miles south of Oracle, will also be on the ballot.

The group is concerned that both developments will diminish the water supply in the area and force toxins from the University of Arizona's Page-Trowbridge Ranch landfill into the regional aquifer from which Oracle gets its water.

The group was, and still is, certain their petitions to put Willow Springs on the ballot were valid. But a lawsuit against Pinal County filed by Anam Inc., the owner of the land, and Elaine Helzer, founder of Pinal Citizens for Positive Growth and Development, a group funded by both Argueta and members of the community, alleges PCSC exceeded their time limit to obtain signatures and requests the county declare the petitions null and void.

"I'm just anti-big development," Baines says.

That sentiment seems to be a popular one at the Farmer's Market today.

"I don't like rapid development," says Armand Mattausch, who has lived in Oracle with his wife for about three years after selling his ranch in Cascabel.

He is lounging in the shade, his legs stretched out in front of him, a baseball cap perched on his head. "What they're planning at Willow Springs is not acceptable."

But he is quick to add that development may be unavoidable.

"You're going to have development," he says. "That's a given."

Lynn Perez-Hewitt, who owns a marketing consulting firm in Tucson, agrees.

"We can't stop development," she says. "What we can do is preserve the integrity of our community."

Paul Everman, who drives trucks for the mines still open in the area, said his family moved to the area from Alaska three months ago and have taken a liking to some of the baked goods at the market in addition to the laid back Oracle lifestyle.

"We came here to get away from the rat race," he says, brushing away crumbs from his mustache.

He says he, "like the rest of the locals," doesn't want a development like Willow Springs to come to the area.

"I wish it wouldn't happen," he says. "People come here to get away from all of that. I don't see how it would benefit the community."

While some people believe development will inevitably happen, they also hope it will not happen right away.

"Change is going to happen no matter what," says Sue Perry, who owns a commercial cleaning business in town and sells her homemade pies, cookies, muffins and breads at the market.

"I just finished these at two this morning," she says, wiping imaginary perspiration from her brow.

"Oracle reminds me of a small town," she continues. "It's very peaceful. I'll just enjoy it while I can."

"Yeah, it's inevitable," says Brent Warburton, who makes pottery for the market. "I hope later than sooner."

Warburton has lived in Oracle for about five years, moving there from Las Vegas for what he hoped would be a little more relaxed lifestyle than his days as a chef.

"This is about my third or fourth career," he says, laughing.

Warburton said an "old friend" attracted him to the area and he doesn't want it to change.

"They're attempting to encroach on our town," he says "Do it somewhere else."

And while he does believe that some benefits, like new employment opportunities, will arise out of new development, he also believes those benefits will not last.

"It will be very short-lived," he says. "A few construction workers and gardeners might be employed, maybe, but I don't think it will be a lasting, long-term impact.

"Plus there's the negative impact of destroying the area," he continues. "They can never pay for that."

Kathryn and Joe Kane have lived in Oracle for more than 25 years and felt firsthand the impact of the mine shut down.

Joe Kane used to work for the mine until it was closed. Now the two rely on items they make to sell at Guyton's Hardware, 1210 W. American Ave.

"Oh my goodness, business owners are desperate for business. We've noticed a huge change. The local people just can't support them," Kathryn Kane says. "This community is turning into a ghost town.

"There aren't any really good attractions to bring people up here. This is a bedroom community, where people live here but work somewhere else, like Tucson."

Kathryn Kane says the community was much more prosperous and popular when the mine was open.

"You had to allow an extra half hour to go to the post office," she says. "You always ran into people who wanted to talk. Now there aren't many of us left."

Kane says she and her husband are "definitely business people" but are also in the minority when it comes to opinions about development in the area..

"We know we definitely have the minority opinion," she says. "There are not a lot of business people in town."

Steve Ganske, broker for Oracle Realty, agrees with Kane, but also says opinions in the community are changing.

"I think the community is starting to come around," he says. "At first, the town was very negative about it."

Ganske, also remembers when the mine shut down and the impact it had on the community.

"It really put a damper on the town," he says.

Since then, he says the area has certainly suffered economically.

"You don't get as many coming in as going out," he says. "For a lot of them, jobs are taking them somewhere else"

For others, though, the reason has not been that optimistic.

"We just put a house on the market that is lender owned," he says, a more polite way of saying that the bank now owns the house because the residents could no longer afford to make payments.

But he says despite the suffering economy, those opposed to growth have a very strong voice within the community.

"The anti-growth people are very strong," he says. "When you're that way, you can come up with all kinds of reasons to stop development."

Some Oracle residents don't like terms like "anti-development" and "anti-growth" when people describe them.

"I'm not anti-development," asserts Web Parton, a long-time Oracle resident. "I never have been. They use that as an attack word."

Parton, one of the strongest voices raising questions about Willow Springs and Falcon Valley, says he doesn't necessarily oppose the development, but does have concerns.

"My interests are specific," he said. "The impact on ground water, for one. They're very vague about where the water will come from."

Parton wrote a report last year criticizing UA's and Arizona's handling of the Page-Trowbridge dump, alleging the water in the aquifer near the site was not safe to drink.

"In my experience, most folks are not in favor of development," Parton says.

"Oracle has always been organized to chart its own course."

J.C. Huntington, another activist also concerned about issues surrounding Willow Springs, lives in Phoenix where he works but also owns land in Oracle with his brother and said he hopes to retire there someday. But he also said he hopes the feel of the community that he loves won't be impacted by a development like Willow Springs.

Huntington says despite the closing of the mine, the community is growing, citing the latest census figures as proof. The figures show a growth in Oracle of 17 percent within the last 10 years.

"The mine did move out, and that was a hit," he says. "But it's not clear to me that this area is in a massive depression."

Kathryn Kane disagrees, saying businesses are closing "left and right."

Bonnie Jean Funk, another longtime Oracle resident, has a teen-age son who she says is "bored out of his mind" living in Oracle.

"He has very little here," she says.

Funk, who openly and adamantly supports development like Willow Springs, says everyone in the community should realize the positive impact development could have on the area.

"Anyone with an ounce of sense knows development brings business," she says.

Funk is also concerned about her son traveling to Tucson to find a job or something to do with his time, other than getting into trouble.

"I don't want him going to Tucson," she says emphatically. "That is too far away."

Members of the community that have felt the tension between the two sides of the issue have chosen to publicly remain neutral on the issue of development to avoid making enemies within the community.

Pauly Skiba, director of the Oracle Public Library, relies solely on donations given to the library by residents in the community.

"I stay very, very neutral," Skiba says cautiously. "I don't want to offend anybody on either side because I go out and ask them for money."

Elida Hildreth, who owns Hildreth Market, also chooses to stay neutral.

"I don't want to hurt people's feelings," she says. "I don't want to get people mad at me. They would come up to me and say 'you said this' and 'you said that.' I don't need that."

But Hildreth says she would like to see some improvements in the area, like better roads and better schools.

"You can't stop progress," she says.

Ganske said someone did try to stop development on a parcel of land he was in charge of in Oracle.

"I was having a property developed, and I had a guy doing dirt work," Ganske says. "He went up there one day and all of his hydraulic hoses were punctured with an ice pick."

Ganske said he never found out who damaged the hoses, and doesn't want to point any fingers.

"I feel sorry for people who can't accept the opposing opinion," Funk says.

Many residents hope they can come to some sort of an agreement with developers about the future of the area.

Merlyn Chaney stands quietly at her checkered table at the market.

"I've lived here for 13 years, she says. "I went running out of Phoenix. Running," she emphasizes.

"I came her to visit one summer and saw the rainstorms coming over the mountain and felt the rain every afternoon and thought 'I gotta live here.'"

Chaney, who owns a kitchen in Oracle, loves the community just the way it is, but also has a positive outlook for its relationship with new developments.

"People can move in that will benefit this community," she says. "If we handle this whole issue with consciousness and integrity, growth can happen in a way we all can live with."

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.