TORTOLITA, Ariz. - The nerve center of this brand-new town is not a shopping mall, health resort or golf club. It's 21 square miles of saguaro, palo verde, cholla and ironwood trees, packed so tightly together that you can't walk through them without getting jabbed.
A 30-minute drive northwest of
Tucson, this is some of the lushest privately owned Sonoran Desert
in the country. Only 3,700 people live here, in houses hidden by
mesquite trees and ocotillo. Mostly this is undeveloped land, raw
and ruggedly beautiful. It is also the setting for one of the most
unlikely victories of environmentalists over developers in the
Southwest in years.
The fight began this summer,
when local residents organized to create a town to protect their
low-density, low-impact way of life.
wasn't easy. Developers sued to prevent the town from forming, and
neighboring towns tried to annex parts of Tortolita for their own
purposes. Then early this month, residents' dreams were realized
when the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to
allow the town to incorporate.
that they overcame extremely long odds," said Lan Lester, a former
Southern California building contractor and museum scientist who
chaired Tortolita's incorporation drive. "We've had a significant
victory. We've captured the high ground and the moral ground."
But Tortolita has been controversial from the
start, and some wonder whether the town will survive in a region
where the economy lives and dies by the buying and selling of
In a metropolitan area where developers
routinely clear every native cactus and shrub to squeeze four to
eight new homes on an acre, Tortolitans boast that they moved here,
in five-year resident Alan Lathrem's words, "to live with the
desert, not against it."
Tortolitans call their
lifestyle "suburban ranch." People have enough individual living
space to raise farm animals, fly small private planes, study the
stars and grow big gardens. At the same time, they live close
enough to Tucson to shop and catch movies and
In response to questionnaires this
summer, homeowners said they wanted no new paved roads, no
commercial development, no street lights, curbs or sidewalks, no
houses on lots smaller than an acre and no more than 15,000
residents within their borders.
took a developer to make the town's creation
High-powered lobbyists for Tucson
developer Don Diamond pushed through a bill in the waning days of
the 1997 Arizona Legislature that removed most legal barriers to
incorporating new cities in the Tucson area. Diamond never
explained why he backed the bill; many observers assumed it was to
give developers even more cities to choose from so they could
negotiate better deals.
For Tortolita, one of
five towns to launch incorporation drives, Diamond's bill was
useful. For five years, residents had watched the County Board of
Supervisors and other towns rezone the land around them for
thousands of new homes (HCN, 10/3/94).
an unlikely coalition of ex-John Birch Society members and
ex-hippies, environmentalists, Libertarians, Republicans and
Democrats decided they'd had enough. Walking door to door, they
began to gather signatures in support of
What held this disparate bunch
together? Simple, says Emil Franzi, a local weekly newspaper
columnist who sat on Tortolita's incorporation steering committee:
"Tree-huggers' don't want trees and cacti destroyed, while
"righties' don't want to pay the tab for building new schools,
roads, libraries and fire stations.
"A lot of
conservatives are tired of subsidizing the growth lobby," says
Franzi, a Republican himself. "You don't have to give a damn about
saguaros to care about the cost of growth."
drive caused an immediate stir. Developers and neighboring towns
filed four lawsuits to prevent the town from forming. Some
landowners, fearing tough zoning restrictions, petitioned to be
annexed into the neighboring, growth-minded towns of Oro Valley and
Marana. Others worried Tortolita would have trouble building a tax
base without commercial development.
would do is to take away any reasonable, logical use," said Joel
Abrams, a real estate investor who owns 15 acres in Tortolita. "In
another environment, in which you had due process, you would work
out a situation where you have commercial development at the major
intersections, and lower-density residential behind that. But
Tortolita won't even listen to that."
By the end
of August, advocates had collected signatures from more than
two-thirds of the proposed town's registered voters, which was
enough to incorporate without having an election. The County Board
of Supervisors made it official Sept. 2.
some doubt the town will last. Two groups of landowners are
pressing lawsuits seeking to undo the incorporation. They argue
Tortolita violated a state law that prohibits new cities in rural
areas containing large tracts of uninhabited
Other skeptics say the town's environmental
purity will soften once developers start knocking on the
"I think it's fair to say power corrupts,"
says Glenn Moyer, a city planner in Tucson. "Once their government
is in place, I definitely expect a different dynamic. It will be
one where it makes more sense to some people to develop than it
does now, whether it's for a tax base, for egos, for any number of
But when the Board of Supervisors
approved the incorporation, Tortolitans were simply celebrating,
chowing down on pizza, quiche and lasagna, and fielding calls from
residents in neighboring communities asking if there was any land
"Everyone is really excited. There's a
tremendous sense of joy," says Lan Lester, now Tortolita's first
mayor. "It is a populist movement here, so now if somebody wants to
stop us, they have to defeat the will of the people. The people
feel that we are there, and now we will defend our turf even more."
* Contact Tortolita Mayor Lan Lester at 12951
Kingaire Drive, Tucson, AZ 85737