Business As Usual

Supervisor Danny Eckstrom Follows The Bucks In Green Valley.
By Tim Vanderpool

YOU COULD ALMOST hear the groan of a thousand bulldozers rumbling to life within the vast Sahuarita High School auditorium March 18, as the Pima County Board of Supervisors approved the first round of what promises to be a massive blading of historic Canoa Ranch near Green Valley.

And you could nearly choke on the sleazy stench of big bucks and backroom deal-making, as an overflow crowd watched Fairfield Homes win its rezoning request on 300 acres of ranch land east of Interstate 19.

But neither the diesel's roar nor the tainted aroma could mute a flurry of questions surrounding Democratic Supervisor Danny Eckstrom, the enigmatic county pol who swung with Republicans Mike Boyd and John Even to approve Fairfield's request. While Eckstrom calls it just a case of giving developers their fair shake, his vote comes amidst consistent rumors of nepotism and money grubbing, in particular his alleged ties to Frank Thomson, the project's smooth-talking point man, and the cash Fairfield and its associates added to Eckstrom's campaign coffers.

Fairfield is now slated to build 500 houses and a golf course on the rezoned property, while the remaining ranch could eventually become a stucco jungle of 6,000 more houses, a resort hotel, equestrian center and yet another stretch of putting greens.

Rezoning opponents say Fairfield's juggernaut spells the end for their rural lifestyles, not to mention their wells, as thousands of new residents tap into the underground supply. Even the Green Valley Coordinating Council--a tribunal of neighborhood groups hardly known for anti-growth crusades--failed to endorse the project.

Fairfield's subcontractors noisily hauled their boys to Tuesday's referendum in a big rented bus. Hapless workers would face unemployment--even welfare, or what's left of it--if the rezoning were denied, said Rudy Mamula, president of Roberts Roofing. But despite such gut-wrenching anxieties, many of Mamula's threatened laborers could be seen catching some snooze time, pulling down their blue company caps as the meeting crawled on. And it was reportedly a profitable slumber; many were allegedly being paid for their dedication to local democracy.

In one more brilliant stroke of machine politics, some claim the contractors were pressured to provide a big turnout by Frank Gradillas, Fairfield's vice president of operations. Attempts to contact Gradillas were unsuccessful. Mamula didn't return several phone calls seeking comment.

Fairfield President David Williamson denies contractors were pushed to pack the house. "There was a meeting with them," he says, "and several of the subcontractors asked if we minded if they attended (the rezoning hearing)." As for whether workers' enthusiasm was whetted by a little extra gravy, Williamson says, "I have no idea."

Meanwhile, at the heart of the wrangling remains Canoa Ranch itself, a silent remnant of an 1821 Spanish land grant. Within its boundaries still lie a rustic cluster of crumbling adobe buildings, perched only a stone's throw from the moribund Santa Cruz River. Part of the county's $362-million bond proposal is earmarked for preserving the ranch, and the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail.

In a December memo, Pima County Parks and Recreation Director Dan Felix called the ranch "one of the richest historical sites in southern Arizona."

Now it will likely place Fairfield among the region's wealthiest building companies as well. And last week's glimpse into Canoa's sprawling future also reveals Supervisor Eckstrom's emerging role as the extremely powerful land-use swing-vote.

Despite looming defeat, Board Chairman Raul Grijalva angrily railed against Fairfield's request, before aligning with mostly silent Supervisor Sharon Bronson to oppose the initial rezoning. Grijalva said the supervisors were dancing in the dark without specific development plans for the entire property. He cited "a need for Fairfield to be accountable," and called for detailed development blueprints to be presented within a year. Then he predicted the company might try to tweak the county rezoning process by entering its proposals piecemeal. Later, Grijalva hinted such attempts could be squashed by stalling building permits for the first 298-acre parcel.

As for Eckstrom's accountability, his vote came on the heels of disclosures he accepted more than $2,200 in contributions from Fairfield officials and associates in 1995-'96. And last month, an anonymous letter to Eckstrom claimed Frank Thomson, who works for a consulting company called Urban Engineering, was hired by Fairfield specifically due to his ties to the supervisor. The Arizona Daily Star also reported Eckstrom and Thomson both worked for a Tucson company called Ruiz Engineering in the 1980s.

Attempts to reach Thomson for comment were unsuccessful. But Fairfield President Williamson says the consultant was hired only due only to his years of experience working in the Green Valley. "We had a few meetings with Frank, and developed a good rapport, so we figured, why shouldn't we use him?" He adds Thomson is planning to stay with his current firm.

Grijalva had championed the fight against Fairfield. Now licking his wounds, he labels Eckstrom a question mark. "Dan's tough to deal with politically because no one knows where he stands," Grijalva says. "He doesn't appear to have any ideology."

But Eckstrom dismisses the grab-bag of criticism, claiming Grijalva also took contributions from supporters of the nearby Santa Rita Springs development, and likewise has well-known ties to development hatchet man Ron Caviglia.

As for his links to Thomson, Eckstrom says the Star report was flat wrong. "I never worked with Frank," he says. "I only know him from board meetings. We've never socialized, and I've never been to his house."

Still, just whose well-heeled roof shades Eckstrom's political hide remains as big a mystery as the man himself. And if the rumors are right, then Pima County's crucial land-use decisions could hinge on a swing vote tossed by business-as-usual breezes. TW

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