Development Dilemma

The National Park Service and neighbors are concerned about; a proposed bicycle guest ranch near Saguaro National Park

The Pima County Board of

Supervisors will decide next week if a proposed guest ranch for bicyclists can be built near the entrance of Saguaro National Park.

For the developers, it's a far better use of the ecologically sensitive land than another subdivision. For the opposition, it's a threat to a pristine swath of desert that's even more unique for being a national park abutting a major city.

The bike ranch, proposed by landowners and developers Kelley Matthews and Peter Lasher, would include 49 guest rooms, along with amenities such as a training facility, bike repair and rental shop, pool and restaurant on the 45 acres they own at East Escalante Road and South Old Spanish Trail. But first, it needs a conditional use permit because the property is within the buffer overlay zone that restricts development around the national park.

The project has already hit some bumps on the way. At a permit hearing in May, dozens of people spoke and submitted letters against the ranch, far outnumbering supporters. The National Park Service was among the disapproving. A county hearing officer followed up by recommending denial of the permit, calling it premature and suggesting that the developers try to work through opponents' concerns over park and wildlife preservation.

Matthews said she expected some opposition, but now she feels she's in a pitched battle.

"I really feel that most of the opposition we have is because what we're proposing is for bicyclists," she said.

David Hoffman, who lives about a mile from the proposed project, makes it clear that isn't why he opposes the ranch.

Furthermore, he doesn't even oppose the idea of a bike ranch. He just doesn't want it across the road from Saguaro National Park because it would set a dangerous precedent.

"Basically, this is the crack in the dam if this happens," he said. "If this happens, developers will start lining up."

Hoffman, with partner Dave Robertson, is rallying people to take a stand to protect the buffer zone, in turn protecting the park. He said the park belongs to everybody, not just the people living closest to it.

Robertson is direct: he doesn't trust the developers, he casts a stern eye on what he says is exploitation of the park for profit, and he's rigid in his position. Even if no other commercial development followed, he wouldn't want the ranch there.

"This," he said, "is a glorified strip mall."

What Matthews sees is a quintessential celebration of Tucson, with its history of guest ranches and status as a premier destination for bicycling tourism. She hopes others in town will agree.

"If we were trying to design a poster child for the kind of new businesses we should be promoting in Tucson, we couldn't come up with anything better," she said.

Describing herself as an avid environmentalist, Matthews said she and Lasher plan to pursue LEED Platinum certification, a designation given by the U.S. Green Building Council to the most sustainably conceived, energy-efficient buildings. Overall, she said more than 80 percent of the property would remain open space.

Matthews said she and Lasher have lived in the area for more than 30 years, and don't want to see the land fill with houses. They bought the property because of its proximity to the national park, seeing their ranch as "utterly symbiotic."

"We feel that it's the best possible thing that could happen on that location for the park," Matthews said.

The land immediately around the park is zoned suburban ranch, so some development is permissible—including a "minor resort," the status the permit would allow.

But Hoffman said the buffer zone has been doing its job, and now his duty is to make sure that buffer doesn't get chipped away.

"What is at risk is far greater than anything they're going to ever make on this," he said.

Like Hoffman, Supervisor Ray Carroll, whose District 4 includes Saguaro National Park and the proposed guest ranch, said the resort is a good idea, but the location isn't. He said he spoke with the landowners early on and advised them that they chose a sensitive area.

Now, he said they're trying to create a defense for bicyclists, when "this isn't just bicyclists. This is about a resort at the gate of Saguaro National Park."

Darla Sidles, Saguaro National Park's Superintendent, said her greatest concern is to protect park resources. She also said she recognizes the potential economic value of the ranch, but that she also needs to recognize the park's neighbors.

Sidles said she has been hearing comments on both sides of the bike ranch issue, but the majority of the closest neighbors are "pretty vehemently opposed to it, and I can't ignore that."

The Board of Supervisors takes up the bike ranch on Nov. 18. The meeting begins at 9 a.m. at the Pima County administrative meeting, 130 W. Congress St.

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