A seminal sprawl fight ends in compromise

A historic Arizona ranch will become a retirement community

  • Canoa Ranch near Tucson, Arizona

    Diane Sylvain

TUCSON, Ariz. - Canoa Ranch was once as big as Grand Canyon National Park, and its importance in southern Arizona society matched its size. While its 780 square miles of private, state and federal grasslands attracted birdwatchers, its owner, Howell Manning Sr., attracted cultural superstars. Manning, born into a pioneering Tucson family, was well-connected enough to bring "White Christmas" composer Irving Berlin to the ranch for a night of piano-playing in the late 1940s.

"It's a power spot," recalls Deezie Manning-Catron, a 76-year-old artist and Manning's daughter-in-law, who lived at the ranch from 1948 to 1956. "When I lived there, it was always understood that it was a place of spiritual energy."

Today, Canoa Ranch lies on metro Tucson's southern edge, 30 miles from downtown and adjacent to a retirement community. It stands as a different kind of power center: Here, one interest group after another has flexed its muscles in Tucson's endless debate about growth and the spread of suburbia.

This spring, the six-year fight ended in compromise. In April, the County Board of Supervisors signed a deal that will set aside more land than any project in the region's history. It will also allow Tucson's suburbia to continue its southward march.

The ranch will soon contain about 2,200 new homes, 150 acres of commercial development and 18 holes of golf. The county will pay $6.4 million for 4,800 acres of open space.

For Deezie Manning-Catron, the compromise was "perhaps the only mature, intelligent way to go." Yet she cannot help but believe that had the fates spun a little differently, the ranch today might still be corrals and irrigation canals.

A dream crashes

Deezie's late husband, Howell Manning Jr., had seemed a natural-born cowboy, standing a stocky 5 feet 8 or 5 feet 9 inches, with brown hair and hazel eyes. A family friend and attorney, B.J. Thompson, recalls that Manning's father, Howell Sr., told him that the younger Manning "took to ranching like a duck takes to water." Described by his widow as "clean-cut, honest and straightforward," Manning spent his days rounding up cattle and horses, fixing fences, opening ditches and playing an occasional game of polo.

Agriculture had been the focus of life at Canoa at least as far back as 900 A.D., when the Hohokam Indians built enclosed compounds east of the Santa Cruz River and diverted water onto their fields from canyons draining the mountains. The Spanish started ranching at the San Ignacio de Canoa land grant in 1821; Anglos first bought the ranch in 1876. Manning's grandfather, Levi, a former Tucson mayor and surveyor for the Arizona Territory, had bought it in 1912, and expanded it from 17,000 to 500,000 acres.

Levi and Howell Sr. built a Mexican-style hacienda ranch house compound and raised Herefords and Arabian horses. Howell Sr., the consummate political insider, met frequently with like-minded souls to decide who would run for the Tucson City Council.

But this lifestyle fell apart just before Christmas 1951, when a drunk driver smashed his vehicle into a car Howell Jr. was driving from Tucson to the ranch. Then 28, Howell Jr. and two companions were killed instantly. Despondent and lacking another male heir interested in ranching, his father turned to the bottle and started selling off the family homestead.

Howell Sr. died in 1967. A year later, the family sold the remaining 6,000 acres to Pennzoil Corp. Twenty-six years, two sales and a Savings & Loan crisis later, the ranch wound up in the hands of Fairfield Homes.

In 1995, with Tucson experiencing runaway growth, Fairfield got a pro-development Board of Supervisors to amend the county's comprehensive land-use plan and recommend up to 37,000 homes on Canoa Ranch. Two years later, the board rezoned 300 acres at the ranch's north end to allow the first 500 of those homes and nine holes of golf.

County pushes for compromise

It looked like Canoa's fate was decided. Before the county could get a crack at rezoning the entire ranch, though, the county's politics abruptly shifted. The death of one board member led to the appointment of a "green Republican," giving the board its first-ever environmental majority. Canoa was its litmus test.

In January 1999, 1,000 people packed a high school gymnasium south of Tucson to speak out about Fairfield's request to build 6,000 homes, 27 holes of golf and 750 acres of commercial development. Fairfield and its supporters argued that the development was the logical extension of suburban development in nearby Green Valley, which had mushroomed over the past 20 years. The Smithsonian Institution feared the development's light pollution would wreck its observatory 10 miles away. A farming family and a mining company feared the development's water pumping would dry up the wells that feed the area's copper mines and pecan groves. Indians and archaeologists feared the loss of cultural sites.

That spring, the supervisors shot down the proposal. It was the first major rezoning killed by the county in 25 years.

But the work had just begun. Over the next two years, the supervisors changed course repeatedly, voting first to condemn the ranch for preservation, then to re-amend the comprehensive plan to allow only low-density development. Because the county lacked money to buy the entire ranch, they thought they had to bend at least some of the zoning in the developer's favor. Otherwise, they feared, Fairfield Homes would sell the land off for unregulated "wildcat subdivisions."

The board was prodded toward compromise by County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, who said that a preservation-development plan was the only realistic choice. He even shunned offers of help from the Trust for Public Land, which commonly buys and holds land until local governments can afford it.

Environmentalists argued that large-scale development of Canoa would wreck the area's wildlife migration corridor, compromise the county's new, million-acre Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan and encourage development of two adjoining ranches. But the protesters' clout had diminished, largely because the development plans had shrunk dramatically. Crowds of 500 to 1,000 at meetings had dwindled to 100 or less.

Finally, last December, the county settled on a comprehensive plan amendment, and ratified it with a formal rezoning in March. The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to allow Fairfield to build 2,199 homes on Canoa. The county will buy 4,800 of the 6,000-acre ranch as open space.

"We're going to save 85 to 86 percent of the land, and we plan to build one of the top 25 retirement communities in the country," a weary Fairfield president David Williamson said after the vote. "It's the result of a lot of give-and-take, working with your neighbor."

Neighborhood activist Ellen Kurtz, who lives southwest of Canoa Ranch, swallowed the vote with resignation: "At least we preserved a lot of it."

She took some consolation in the fact that the county will spend $2 million to restore the 90-year-old adobe ranch house complex. The house, where Deezie Manning-Catron spent most of a decade, will become a Smithsonian Institution-run historical museum - adjoining a new shopping center to the south.

As Manning-Catron walked through the old ranch house before the final vote, she stared down the past and the future. She winced at the sight of collapsing roofs. She eyed the fresh red tile roofs dotting ridgetops to the west, along the freeway, where Fairfield is building previously approved subdivisions. She reminisced about the days of hand-cranked telephones, and briefly stared at footprints that she and her two infant daughters had left 50 years ago on the fresh cement borders of a flagstone terrace.

"You ask, am I sad?" Manning-Catron said. "Well, yes. How I have to look at it is: I'm lucky to be here today."

Tony Davis covers development issues for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson. You can contact him at [email protected]

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Tony Davis

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