Because it had the initial planning contract on the Lost Dutchman land, Actus went into the December 2006 auction with an advantage: It had intimate knowledge of the value of the parcel -- which seemed to be diminishing, thanks to the deepening real estate slump. A state land auction earlier in the year on another urban parcel failed to net a sale, and it seemed unlikely that anyone would meet the $45.3 million starting bid. So it was a shock when Desert Communities Inc., a troubled Las Vegas homebuilder, competed vigorously against Actus in the bidding, driving the price up to $58.6 million. It was even more of a shock when Desert Communities won. Land Department officials said publicly that Rhodes Homes Inc. -- the owner of Desert Communities -- would set a new standard for sustainable development. But in an internal e-mail soon after the sale, Winkleman suggested otherwise.
"When is Rhodes going to implement progressive/non profitable design standards for the project?" former State Deputy Land Commissioner Richard Hubbard asked Winkleman in an e-mail. The land commissioner's response was telling: "I'm sure that Rhodes will be very publicly minded in their planning activities. Rhodes has $200M in the bank, who needs to make a profit?"
Perhaps Rhodes wasn't as flush as Winkleman thought. Desert Communities missed its first $6 million payment to the Land Department in December 2007, then missed another in December 2008. Future payments appear in doubt: This March, Desert Communities' parent company, Rhodes Homes, filed for bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, the Morrison Institute report helped the Superstition Vistas steering committee raise more than $1.6 million to pay for more detailed conceptual plans for the project. Salt River Project, the state's second-largest electric utility, which will provide power to the proposed new city, contributed about $450,000 to help pay for the plans being prepared by Robert Grow Consulting, a Salt Lake City planning firm. Grow is expected to present a report later this spring that will include four development scenarios, ranging from traditional development models to a "super sustainability" model with a reported goal of zero net carbon increase.
Only then will the general public finally get a detailed look at the various development scenarios for Superstition Vistas -- six years after initial planning got under way. Still, the public's role -- which has thus far been minimal -- remains in doubt. There is no formal public entity presenting the proposed Superstition Vista development plans, and the steering committee -- unlike, say, a county government -- is not required to incorporate public suggestions.
And it appears that public attempts to research the impact of sustainable development in the area are being stymied. Arizona State University's School of Sustainability wants to erect an environmental monitoring station on the property to measure the changes induced by urbanization of the desert. But the Land Department has refused to allow it to do so. According to internal e-mails, the department is concerned that the data collected "would be used to hinder our future dispositions" of trust land. Winkleman, who said he wasn't aware of this, refused to comment.
No matter what plans the steering committee comes up with, the State Land Department has limited ability to make future developers at Superstition Vistas abide by them. Local zoning ultimately will be determined by the municipality that oversees actual development of the property. And the four cities -- Mesa, Apache Junction, Florence and Queen Creek -- that are competing to annex portions of the state land have shown little enthusiasm for reining in growth.
Winkleman says the State Land Department can exercise some influence over how development is implemented by requiring municipalities to sign comprehensive development agreements. If they refuse to go along, Winkleman says, the Land Department could refuse to allow the state land to be annexed. Others are working on a ballot measure that would allow the Land Department to create binding master plans on state lands before they are sold at auction. Achieving even minimal reform of antiquated state land management rules has proven to be difficult, but with the homebuilders on the skids, it may be easier now.