Saddle Sore

One developer's wet dream is an equestrian's nightmare.

THIS IS A STORY OF immovable objects and broken promises, of horses and subdivisions, of the town we like to imagine and the one we really have.

Tucson has a love of horses and things cowboy. They're a cultural legacy here, and unlike in most places, horses are not beyond the financial reach of all but the rich. I ride with firefighters, RNs, military personnel, even the occasional hippie. An unusual mix of people. But the love of horses brings us together, and on a sunny day with a cool breeze blowing, it is somehow enough. Horse people in this town make up a refreshingly respectful community.

Then there is real estate development. Some is inevitable, so they say, for the area's economic well-being, so we get suburban sprawl by Pulte and his ilk. But if to the environmentally conscious this kind of thinking constitutes a slap in the face, The Lakes at Castle Rock is a dagger in the heart.

This eastside development bears a striking resemblance to hundreds of other developments throughout the Southwest, only with water--lots of water. It's a sort of concrete and drywall Venice mock-up, complete with canals, ponds and lakes. If you lived in this gated community and never went out, you might not know whether you were in Westlake, Calif., Blanding, Texas, or a suburb of Las Vegas. Everything looks the same, and around every corner is an aesthetically soothing body of water at which to gaze. Children don't swim in "The Lakes," dogs don't paddle in them. Occasionally people fish in the biggest one, but I don't imagine you can eat the fish. I think they put something in the water to keep it looking blue and authentic. There's a great blue heron who's taken up residence there. Sucker gets bluer every day.

The large lake at the westernmost edge of the development, next to the Tanque Verde Wash, is near a "dedicated trail." This is an area equestrians have rights to by virtue of traditional use; and in this case, a promise penned on the original developer's plan, granting the public both pedestrian and equestrian use of the trail traversing 40 yards of sewer easement connecting two pieces of county land.

So locals, equestrians and hikers alike are wondering what's with the cell-phone patrol and the old man swinging the shovel?

Both started a few months ago, coming on the heels of hints that we were no longer welcome. Hints in the form of barbed wire strewn across the trail, then boulders and logs. It all looks tacky and haphazard, like a backhoe upchucked and someone forgot to clean up afterwards. Strange behavior coming from people with such lofty aesthetic standards that they're compelled to pump millions of gallons of water from an already taxed aquifer, so they can create fake lakes and forget they're in the desert. Very strange.

Emily Hulsey is a gentle soul, the kind of person who considers the words "dag nabbit" harsh language. She told me of her first encounter. "I saw two men on the easement, and an old man with a shovel raised to three men on horses. I just went over there; I had my cell phone and thought I might need to call the police. I thought there was going to be an assault." Emily shakes her blond curls and laughs in dismay. "They were shouting, I was trying to calm things down. So I asked the man, very politely, what we were supposed to do when the wash is running and we've got no choice but to use the trail. He said, 'Turn around and go back.'"

This is tough, considering all the riding and hiking trails are on the other side of the easement.

"I don't understand why this is a problem," says Martina Espinoza, another rider. "The trail is at the edge of the wash, with the nearest houses a quarter of a mile away. I don't see why all of a sudden we aren't supposed to ride here. There are no children swimming in the lake. They have signs. You aren't allowed to swim in it, only look at it."

The "problem" with The Lakes becomes apparent upon entering the bird sanctuary. Located on a piece of land adjacent to the housing development, it was donated by the original owner of the ranch upon which The Lakes development sits. The interesting thing about this bird sanctuary is that there aren't any birds in it. The mesquites are dying because the water table in the area has dropped 20 feet since 1981. Mesquites, possessed of long tap roots capable of reaching 150 feet to the aquifer, cannot reach anymore.

Ray Harris with the Arizona State Geological Survey assures me I can't put all the blame for the dying bird sanctuary on The Lakes. "There are over a hundred wells all pumping groundwater in the east Tanque Verde Wash area," he says. "The Lakes is only one of them."

Okely dokely. Then I'll only put part of the blame with them. My neighbors and I use ground water for drinking, bathing, even swimming. But we don't use millions of gallons to create the appearance of lushness in a fragile and already beleaguered desert environment.

"It is strange," says Espinoza. "You ride through the desert and then you come to this (The Lakes). What is it doing here?"

Francis Hart wonders about that, too. But for different reasons.

I met Fran through our mutual horseshoer. She's a second-grade teacher and brags of having the last cattle grate in Tucson. For the last 20 years she has lived on four and a half acres of horse property between the Catalina Highway and the Tanque Verde Wash. She is now surrounded on three sides by The Lakes at Castle Rock; and when I say surrounded, I ain't whistling Dixie. If she were to go outside in her undies, everyone in Castle Rock would know their color by tea-time. Her privacy, a valued commodity--she moved out here when there was nothing--has completely disappeared.

"I tried to adjust. I had this idea, when the development started going in, that maybe I'd have some nice neighbors, make some friends. I even thought some of my new friends might invite me over for tennis." She laughs, but it's not a good laugh. It's the kind that makes your stomach muscles clench because it's the exact opposite of what she wants to do. "Instead, I get these." She hands me a stack of papers.

They're complaints. The Lakes at Castle Rock Homeowner's Association has reported Fran Hart to the County Department of Environmental Quality six times, claiming manure runoff problems. Six times, upon random inspections, she's been found in compliance and the complaints have been voided. But for a small, one-bedroom house, her property is natural Sonoran desert, complete with multiple cacti, palo verde and mesquite trees and almost continuous ground cover. She's got two well-fed horses, and on four and a half acres their presence is barely noticeable. I drove right past them when I arrived, didn't even see them.

"Let me show you something," she says as we drag step ladders up to her back wall. Abutting her land is a recently built cul-de-sac in which a concrete drainage canal--the extension of a natural wash running through Fran's property--empties. But there's no culvert to channel the water from one side of the street to the other, just flat tarmac. It's an obvious design problem. A four-year-old could see it.

Fran doesn't say anything, just goes red in the neck and face and hands me a letter that leaves me speechless. It's from the Homeowner's Association at The Lakes, threatening legal action if she doesn't stop the drainage from pooling in their cul-de-sac. And more recently, having failed to get the Departmnet of Environmental Quality to punish Fran, the homeowners have complained to the city attorney.

She's also had her trail access blocked--coincidentally within a week of receiving the threat of legal action--by a wall that serves no purpose I could see, except to block her trail access.

I called Terry Foust, the manager for The Lakes homeowner's association. Her office said, "No comment."

I went riding in the area south of The Lakes today, and when we got to the trailhead it was blocked, like always, by rotting logs, sticks, whatever the old handyman with the shovel can find. Problem is, he's got access to machinery, so the logs keep getting heavier and harder to shove off into the wash. Still, I was dutiful, got off my mare and heaved the smaller of the logs off the path. This was enough to get through, but my companion--all 110 pounds of her--wasn't satisfied. She dismounted and, while I held the horses, wrestled the big log, several times her size, off into the wash, too. I stood there watching this tiny woman doing battle with this big, stupid log.

There's gotta be a metaphor in there somewhere.

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