Luxury homes torched in Tucson

The fires follow a string of similar arsons in Phoenix

  • NO SUSPECTS: Charred remains of a nearly completed luxury home that burned in an arson fire in the Santa Catalina foothills north of Tucson

    Jim Davis
 

TUCSON, Ariz. - Sales brochures for Pima Canyon Estates paint the luxury-home development as a place of uncompromising serenity: "It's what made you fall in love with Tucson to begin with." A glossy circular shows pinkish, sunset-drenched saguaros at the mouth of Pima Canyon, where rock spires on steep hillsides overlook a rich riparian area next to the Coronado National Forest.

Today, however, four brand-new houses in the Catalina Foothills north of Tucson sit blackened in total or partial ruin. On June 12, shortly after midnight, an arsonist torched the 5,000- to 8,000-square-foot vacant structures, causing $2 million in damage. Phoenix has experienced 11 such arsons of trophy homes during the last three years, and the Tucson fires followed a similar pattern. In Tucson, as in Phoenix, a graffiti signature - CSP, or Coalition to Save the Preserves - was found near the homesites.

Two days after the Tucson fires, Phoenix authorities arrested Mark Warren Sands, a 49-year-old marketing consultant, and charged him with eight of the Phoenix fires. Sands, a former spokesman for Arizona's Department of Education, was first arrested in April for spray-painting CSP on a sign.

Authorities allege that Sands - who wore a purple shirt depicting the Sonoran Desert at his initial court hearing - left notes with Biblical-sounding admonitions at his targets, including "Thou shalt not desecrate God's creation."

Sands is not a suspect in the Tucson fires, since he was in Phoenix on June 12. Authorities say they don't know if the Tucson fires were the work of a copycat, a conspiracy linked by Interstate 10, or a pyromaniac hiding behind the banner of stopping sprawl.

The roots of eco-sabotage

Some environmentalists say business interests are as likely suspects as disgruntled environmentalists; a few worry that a lone ecoterrorist could sully the mainstream movement's image. Privately, many joke that there are a few houses they'd like to show the arsonist.

If the Tucson fires turn out to be politically motivated, the practice of sabotage in the name of nature will have returned to its roots. In the early 1970s, a band of University of Arizona students known as the "eco-raiders" helped inaugurate the rising tide of monkey-wrenching by vandalizing construction sites.

Earth First!, which took cues from sometime Tucson resident Edward Abbey, got its start here in 1980. Nine years later, several of its leaders were arrested in Tucson on charges of cutting power lines to the Palo Verde nuclear plant west of Phoenix. And the Earth First! Journal, the movement's mouthpiece, moved back to town this spring, from Eugene, Ore.

After the Tucson arsons, local Earth First!er John Stephens raised eyebrows by calling the arsons "a positive thing." Stephens denies that he or any others affiliated with Earth First! were involved with the burnings, but he says, "People are desperate to get their message out and they've given up on politics and the modern environmental groups."

Earth First! co-founder and former Tucsonan Dave Foreman, who now lives in Albuquerque, says civil disobedience in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. is a good thing, but burning down luxury homes is wrong and can do more harm than good.

"That kind of stuff gets in the way of making a point of the problems that are really going on," says Foreman, who now runs the Wildlands Project, a science-based group seeking to expand wilderness areas (HCN, 4/26/99: Visionaries or dreamers?).

David Goldstein, president of Diamond Ventures, an affiliate of the Pima Canyon developer, couldn't agree more. "We're shocked that there are people who would have so little regard for people's health and welfare and property," he says. "They're criminals."

Not part of the plan

The timing of the arsons is ironic, since environmentalism is gaining strength in this booming city. In response to federal endangered-species listings, the county government is pushing a $500 million plan to save 1 million acres of Sonoran Desert (HCN, 1/18/99: Desert sprawl).

Just a week before the fires, the County Board of Supervisors unanimously rammed through conservation guidelines for the proposed preserve. The new regulations could require developers of land within the preserve to save up to 80 percent of their property as open space until a final plan is approved in two years.

Pima Canyon Estates, overseen by influential Tucson developer Don Diamond, got its start during an earlier era in the city's growth. In those days, development-friendly candidates dominated the supervisors' board and large rezonings were routinely approved.

The supervisors zoned the 471-acre property for one house per acre in 1959, then slotted some of that land for industrial or office development in the early 1980s.

Environmentalists' concerns prompted county staff to craft a proposal to save 107 acres at a cost of $4.3 million. The staff's 1989 draft report said the canyon area was its top priority for open-space acquisition, one of the county's most vulnerable places and the largest undeveloped foothills parcel.

But the county and the developer could never agree on a purchase price. Later, the developer got the land rezoned for a resort hotel, then switched it back to housing. In the late 1990s, environmentalists' anger about the multiplying homes on the land helped spark the current countywide conservation plan.

A Pima Canyon Estates property owner, Rita Graber, says the concerns of environmentalists are misplaced. She and her husband, Darrell, were pursuing a dream to live in a pretty place when they bought a lot on Desert Garden Drive, across the street from three of the burned homes.

Seeing Pima Canyon as "beautiful and untouched," they had planned to break ground in a month, leaving 80 percent of their land undisturbed. They spent many hours inventorying cacti on a map to figure out what to save and transplant.

Developers have imposed 50 pages of restrictions on Pima Canyon homeowners, including 18-foot-height limits on houses and lists of banned and permitted plants.

"I know my neighbors feel the same way about the property. The area is gorgeous and we all want to preserve the natural look as much as possible," Graber says.

But neighbors of the estates, many of whom live on one to five-acre lots, say that bobcats, javelina and other large mammals have declined since the estates started construction in 1997.

"They've been very careful in putting in roads and not destroying stuff recklessly," neighborhood activist Joe Frannea said. "But when you're dealing with one-acre lots and two-acre lots and you put in a 4,000 square-foot home, driveways, parking spaces and pools, what's left of the desert?"

Authorities have found an ignition device, which they wouldn't identify, that they suspect was used to start at least one of the Tucson fires.

But even after interviews with more than 40 people, Deputy Nicole Feldt told the Arizona Daily Star, "We still have no suspects, no leads and no motives."

 

Tony Davis and Mitch Tobin cover growth and environmental issues for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Tony Davis and Mitch Tobin