A town with a desert heart

  • Much of the new town of Tortolita, Ariz., is undisturbed desert

    Benji Sanders

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.

The task 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.

"Everybody feels 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 land.

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 concerts.

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.

Ironically, it took a developer to make the town's creation possible.

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).

In June, 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 incorporation.

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."

The 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.

"What they 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.

Still, 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 land.

Other skeptics say the town's environmental purity will soften once developers start knocking on the door.

"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 reasons."

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 for sale.

"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."

You can ...

* Contact Tortolita Mayor Lan Lester at 12951 Kingaire Drive, Tucson, AZ 85737 (520/544-4057).

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