Desert sprawl

  • Southern Arizona

    Diane Sylvain
  • Lone saguaro in a bulldozed lot

    Michael Berman photo
  • Worker surveys bladed lot at Honey Bee Ridge development

    Michael Berman photo
  • Frank Behlau, Pima County planner

    Michael Berman
  • Mike Boyd, Pima County supervisor

  • COMMUTES WILL GET LONGER: Thirty miles from downtown Tucson

    Michael Berman photo
  • Golf at El Conquistador Country Club

    Michael Berman photo
  • Looking east from Sentinel Peak across Tucson

    Michael Berman photo
  • Tony Davis

  • Michael Berman

    W.S. Sutton

Note: This feature story is accompanied by seven sidebars listed at the end.

TUCSON, Arizona

Last spring, tens of thousands of people strolled the Street of Dreams subdivision to gaze at a $749,000 mansion. Behind the house, man-made waterfalls flowed past prickly pear and saguaro cacti. Inside, a television set popped up from a nightstand at the flick of a switch. The home's sandstone floors hailed from India. Limestone countertops were shipped from Turkey, salt-glazed floor tile was a product of Spain.

For their first Tucson promotion, the developers chose to build at the glitzy Honey Bee Ridge development, where 128 homes costing up to $825,000 are being plopped 300 feet from one of this desert city's last untouched riparian areas.

Like most of its kind in southern Arizona, Honey Bee Canyon contains an on-again, off-again stream, carrying water only after heavy rains. The canyon is a relic of 19th century Tucson, where rivers and washes sheltered blue herons and orioles, and where early settlers dug small diversion channels to irrigate corn and bean fields. The pressures of growth long ago dried up most rivers like this.

But Honey Bee still lures hikers and naturalists with its willow and mesquite trees, and its rust-colored walls tower up to four stories high. Starting in the Tortolita Mountains, the canyon slices five miles through the boomtown of Oro Valley, 25 miles north of downtown Tucson.

The housing development's promotional literature plays off the landscape: "Rare it is to find such sensitive development around one of Tucson's premier, history-laden natural wonders - Honey Bee Canyon." Panoramic mountain views "representing the Sonoran Desert at its most opulent, instill in every site a feeling of rare tranquility." Homebuyers went for it.

"We like land and we like privacy," transplanted Connecticut resident Mel Goldberg said, shortly after he and his wife, Sally, bought a $775,000 home on the street last winter.

"It was the total package, the quality of the home. Every room was beautiful, and it had a view of the mountains and desert. Everything had a very nice flow."

But the response of curiosity-seekers who paid $7 apiece to tour the houses was not unanimous. Many noted the pressures these homes would put on the deer and other native wildlife that live in the canyon.

"The homes are beautiful, and they fit into the landscape," Tucson resident Leslie Shapiro said. "If this is all they are going to build, fine. But I see sign after sign for other homes. We came here for open spaces, the beauty and the mountains. It's going to grow like Topsy here, and they need controls or they are going to ruin this place."

But Joe and Mary Sciabarra of suburban Oro Valley said that it wasn't fair to deprive others of the chance to live in such a beautiful place.

"Where do you draw the line?" Mary Sciabarra asked a reporter.

In Tucson, the answer to that question has always been, "Nowhere."