A decision rests in the hands of the Marana Town Council about whether visitors to Tortolita Mountain Park may drive through an exclusive, upscale development.

But the council said it has too little information to make the decision.

At a public hearing and town council meeting Tuesday, Feb. 3, the council voted to hold off deciding whether the town should abandon a public easement and right-of-way north of Thornydale and Moore roads through Saguaro Ranch.

Two agenda items addressed the matter, but after area residents turned up in droves to give three hours of testimony — more than 30 spoke, nearly all against abandonment — the council directed town staff to research the testimony and report back.

“I’m not ready to take action,” Councilwoman Patti Comerford said.

Much of the public testimony revolved around the speakers’ perceived right to drive to Tortolita Mountain Park along the same route they had always used — a primitive road that existed long before Saguaro Ranch began development in 2003.

An alternate public route to the park allows hike-in access through the Wild Burro trail system. But area residents pointed out the hiking access is more difficult for the elderly, for children and the handicapped. Other accesses are proposed, but they involve securing access through state land.

Area residents said the town council shouldn’t hand over for free something that belongs to the public. One pointed out that Marana’s strategic plan emphasizes recreation opportunities. Others raised questions about the viability of Saguaro Ranch, some of which is in the early phase of foreclosure proceedings.

“It’s doubtful Saguaro Ranch will last,” said Steve Bloomquist, a Pima County resident. “Why would you want to give this to a failing developer?”

Another resident said Tortolita Mountain Park is a piece of history belonging to everybody.

“Most of the residents of Marana won’t be living in Saguaro Ranch because they can’t afford it,” Steve Rowe told the council. “When you go through this process, represent our voice and make every effort to protect what belongs to the people.”

Three lawyers spoke on behalf of Saguaro Ranch’s developer, Stephen Phinny. They said a public easement would do the residents no good, because only a private road exists north of McClintocks restaurant, which sits within Saguaro Ranch south of the park.

Stephen Weeks, an attorney representing neighborhood residents, told the council that because the public has used the road north of McClintocks for years, he believes the courts would rule it is a public road.

Town attorney Frank Cassidy believes Arizona courts would not deem that segment of road public, and if the road isn’t public, the easement loses its value to the public.

“It’s a different question if the road goes to nowhere than if it’s a road to a public park,” he said.

Councilwoman Comerford expressed frustration that the issue of right of way in Saguaro Ranch had come to the council before the governing board was equipped to make an informed judgment.

 “I’m very disappointed in the town,” Comerford said. “I was here. I’m disappointed in me. Disappointed we are here tonight. I think this was done too soon. Questions still need to be answered. We need to find a solution to this. Basically, I’m just disgusted.”

Town staff will research comments from the public hearing and report any findings to the town council.

Town staff is taking a three-phase approach to the issue. First, it will do intensive research into the public and private access issues raised at the meeting, and review the public policy decisions regarding use of and access to Pima County’s Tortolita Mountain Park.

Next it will engage with stakeholders, partners and residents to identify options to address access to the park. Then it will present recommendations to town council.

Although the town gave no timetable, staff plans to start work immediately.

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