Melancholy Acres

The Environmental Horror Visited Upon Agua Dulce Is Just Business As Usual In Pima County.

By Chris Limberis

WHERE ED ABBEY once prowled, Borderland Construction water tanks squat. Where Barbara Goldman and her retriever-mix Max Baer once scouted, earth movers are finishing the scraping and contouring of dirt for a thousand homes on 463 acres of what once was a dry Hohokam farm.

It's a common story in Pima County--vast blading-and-grading projects that are shocking to the eyes and enraging to the neighbors. But there is scarcely any outrage here. Battles over the Agua Dulce parcel, which moved in and out of the hands of such speculators at Gary Triano, the DeConcini family and a band of Hollywood types, have long since subsided.

It's just another delayed birth of a Pima County subdivision: the Board of Supervisors approved the Agua Dulce, represented then by Triano and his planners and presenters, Ron Asta and Don Laidlaw, 12 years ago.

Currents It was a gift of a contorted motion from Republican/ Democrat/Republican/ Republican-Independent Supervisor Ed Moore to convert the Agua Dulce from a wonderful natural playground for neighbors, hikers and campers to curbs, gutters and stucco.

Some neighbors became quite attached to the natural environment. Norman Fenton, a retired Superior Court judge, hiked through, camped on, and explored the property with such regularity that he tried to assert a prescriptive right to a portion of Agua Dulce. A Superior Court jury did not agree with his claims.

TUCSON MOUNTAINS Association President Carol Klamerus knows full well that whatever battle was fought over Agua Dulce, it has long been a "done deal."

Still, she says, the end result is "very depressing."

Many of the Agua Dulce players are no longer around. Abbey, who enjoyed the fires he ignited there, and two members of the Board of Supervisors from that time, Sam Lena and Iris Dewhirst, have died. Triano's run ended a little more than two years ago in a well-crafted explosion in a La Paloma Resort parking lot.

Barbara Chaney Goldman is still around. She walked the property and her beloved Roger Wash for much of the 26 years she lived near the Agua Dulce. For about six years, she kept a journal that included what she encountered on the walks she enjoyed with her dog. The entries became the basis for a booklet, "Rambling Roger Wash," that is part of the county's Agua Dulce file.

While the work didn't stop the Agua Dulce Development, it certainly underscored the love and attachment Tucsonans have for washes and the surrounding desert.

Goldman remembers "quite a battle" over the Agua Dulce. But 12 years after that fight, her aqua-aerobics instructor has purchased a homesite there.

"It reminded me that I had a nice, young family once, too," Goldman said recently.

OFF SWEETWATER Drive, between El Moraga Drive and Camino De Oeste, the attraction to the gently-sloping Agua Dulce is understandable. It's blessed with the Roger Wash and astounding views of the Tortolitas, Pusch Ridge and the Santa Catalinas, Redington, the Rincons and, of course, the Tucson Mountains.

Dewhirst and then-supervisor David Yetman, a Democrat and the board's presumptive environmentalist whose district included Agua Dulce, voted against the development.

"I have for the last year endured some jibes and some nasty comments, because I have stated publicly that I think this kind of planning is necessary," Yetman said at one supervisors' meeting. "By voting against this I am not voting against the concept, I am voting against what I believe is a density that is too high, given the character of the area, given the nature of it, and given the fact also that my constituents have made it very clear to me they don't want me to vote for it..."

Then, in his third and last term, Yetman danced on the fence. He refused to add a buffer for a neighboring property owner and praised the plan and Asta, whose own controlled-growth term on the Board of Supervisors crashed in 1976 after one rancorous term. The Agua Dulce project was Asta's first job in his new role representing developers.

Just before Moore's motion passed 3-2 on Feb. 4, 1986, Yetman said, "I think that the kind of plan that Mr. Asta has presented is going to be a benefit to the hilly and mountainous areas, the metropolitan area of the City of Tucson, and I think particularly to Tucson Mountains."

It wasn't as if the mountains, ridges and washes near Sweetwater and Camino de Oeste, dotted with CR-1 (one home per acre) and SR (one home per 3.3 acres) were pristine natural enclaves. The homes of the wealthy sit right atop mountain tops and cut into slopes off Crestview Road and Circle, south and west of the Agua Dulce.

And after the supervisors gave their blessing, banks, investors and the Resolution Trust Corporation jumped in. And the design was adjusted in 1988 at the county's Design Review Committee.

Today, Peter Aronoff's A.F. Sterling Homes and Richmond-American have set up mobile offices with their portable generators at Agua Dulce to peddle the lots. Richmond-American has inexplicably blended the language, adding the Italian sweet "dolce." The scraping and grading can hardly be a surprise. Triano's crew did the same years ago. Some of Triano's streets are being redone. Cactus and trees are tagged. Utility trenches are exposed. The heavy clear-cutting has been done in the vast property's interior, so from several first looks on the perimeter, it seems as if developers are preserving the vegetation and natural contours.

But life isn't what it was.

On one clear afternoon recently a coyote was undaunted by a curb crew, pitchmen and prospective buyers, although the animal appeared a bit agitated in its hunt for a snack as it walked right down the middle of Agua Dulce's new streets.

Sellers are eager to note that Tucson Unified School District has its Robins Elementary School in place. But Agua Dulce will again expose TUSD's poor planning: The attractive school, with its desert entrance, won't be able to handle Agua Dulce's influx. Opened five years ago with 240 students, Robins is now about 150 students away from its 500-student capacity.

Agua Dulce represents other things to Klamerus. Old, unperfected rezonings lurk throughout Pima County. High densities catch both newcomers and oldtimers by surprise.

"People are in for a rude awakening in many instances," Klamerus says. "They move in and learn later that high density is next door. The real-estate agents aren't going to tell them."

Klamerus also sees these types of rezonings as justification for county authority to redefine zoning and to downzone where appropriate.

"Just because we made these big mistakes," she says, "doesn't mean we have to continue them." TW

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