Tortolita Showdown

Neighbors and Saguaro Ranch officials fight over the fate of two roads

Tortolita neighbors of the Saguaro Ranch multi-million-dollar development want boulders removed and easements respected.
When Steve Blomquist and Sharyl Cummings finished building their house in 1996 in the Tortolita foothills, they say they found a bit of paradise where they could hike or drive right up to the edge of the Tortolita Mountain Park using Tortolita Estates Drive.

The unpaved road was created in 1974, when a private easement for the road was legally placed on all property deeds in the vicinity. However, today, Blomquist and Cummings--along with more than six other families--are fighting to keep the road open, accusing Saguaro Ranch CEO Stephen Phinny of blocking their access with a row of boulders that sit at the road's gated entrance.

Meanwhile, on the southwest side of Saguaro Ranch--which was annexed into Marana in 2003--Tracy Chamberlain owns about 20 acres adjacent to the development. Chamberlain, too, has become a vocal critic of Saguaro Ranch, because of another road that leads into the 1,035-acre Saguaro Ranch.

The partially unpaved road--an extension of Thornydale Road that's recorded as a public easement--has been used by Chamberlain and other families for drives, hikes and horseback rides since the early 1970s. A gate that leads to part of that road, like Tortolita Estates Drive, is now blocked by a wall of boulders.

Despite the boulders and threats from Saguaro Ranch employees telling her she'd be arrested for trespassing, Chamberlain continues to walk the road, which brought her to another issue: She discovered a septic system built under the road to service Phinny's home, although the system has yet to receive approval from Pima County to be used.

According to Chamberlain, she thought it was illegal to put a septic system under a public road. When she brought it up to Marana officials; they told her the plan for the project identified the road as a nonmotorized path. When Chamberlain showed officials documentation of the easement, Marana and Pima County Department of Environmental Quality officials admitted they'd made a mistake.

Mike Redmond, a PDEQ planning manager, says the system's construction permit was issued based on the information provided, and nobody realized it was a public easement until Chamberlain intervened. On April 24, Redmond sent Phinny's engineer a letter declining a request to switch on the system until the road issue is addressed.

Blomquist says the problems with the roads began in 2002, when Phinny removed a combination lock on the road's gate and replaced it with a key lock, preventing Blomquist and others from using the road. Blomquist says he cut that lock, which was replaced by Phinny. About five locks later, Blomquist says, a pile of boulders showed up at the entrance.

Neighbors have hired an excavator about four times so far to remove the ever-returning pile of boulders. Right now, there is a 3-foot-high wall of rocks there. Blomquist says he's getting ready to call another excavator to move those boulders yet again--at a cost of more than $320 per removal.

Blomquist says he and his neighbors are disappointed in Marana town officials, who have remained neutral, regarding the issue as a civil matter.

The Tucson Weekly called Phinny for comment. His attorney, Craig L. Keller, of Keller and Hickey in Tempe, returned the call and referred to an April 29, 2008, letter delivered to Chamberlain and several other neighbors. The letter claims that Blomquist and his neighbors are trespassing when they walk on the roads.

The letter also claims that any rights to the easements no longer exist: "(Y)ou no longer have a purpose for ingress and egress. There is no destination, use or purpose associated with whatever easement rights you claim."

Frank Cassidy, the Marana town attorney, says he hopes the dispute will end once either the neighbors or Saguaro Ranch officials head to Superior Court to get a declaratory judgment on whether the roads remain public easements.

Keller referred to the letter when asked if his clients were headed in that direction, though the letter does not specifically state that the developer will seek a judgment.

Cassidy says he is uncertain how long Marana can remain neutral, but if the city decides to choose sides, it will most likely choose Saguaro Ranch by abandoning the roads--allowing Saguaro Ranch officials to do whatever they choose.

"It's a real problem, because both sides feel they are on the right side," Cassidy says. "It's becoming difficult to stay neutral. I don't know how long we're going to be able to do that. ... We have the right to abandon it. As we tire of the fighting, it could happen."

In the meantime, at both the Saguaro Ranch entrance--which goes through a quarter-mile tunnel blasted through a hill--and at the Thornydale Road extension, neighbors protest almost every evening, holding neon signs declaring that the roads are public, not exclusive.

For further resolution, Blomquist and his neighbors are looking to Pima County, which owns about 80 acres at the end of the Tortolita Estates Drive easement, called the Leef property. Last year, the county considered using the road for public access into Tortolita Mountain Park--a plan supported by Blomquist and other neighbors.

Tim Blowers, a Tortolita area resident, says he was under the impression that county directed staff last year to hold a series of public hearings. Those meetings have yet to happen.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry says there will be no public meetings. Huckelberry says the agreement between the county and Saguaro Ranch, signed in October 2007, requires the development to build an equestrian and pedestrian trail access leading up to Tucson Mountain Park. There is no deadline, but the trail and the trailhead must be approved by the county before the third and final phase of the development is approved by Marana.

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