In February, when Oro Valley's Planning and Zoning Commission rejected Mike Naifeh's plan to pave most of Steam Pump Ranch to make way for commercial development, the developer said that he could just as easily bulldoze the historic structures as preserve them.
Last week, he took a step toward making good that threat.
On April 14, the developer submitted an application to demolish about half the structures on the property, including the historic steam pump building and ranch house.
In a letter to the town's building safety department, owner John Lieber said it was with "great reluctance and regret," that he gave his consent to Naifeh to apply for the demolition permit. Lieber did not return phone calls for comment.
In December, Naifeh and his partners, Brake Masters owners Eric and Shalom Laytin, purchased six acres of the 15-acre property for $500,000, including the historic core of the 1870s cattle ranch and stage stop.
A conditional lien on the property pending rezoning to a higher density means that the purchase price goes up when the property is rezoned, said Naifeh's attorney Larry Rollin of the Tucson firm Chandler and Udall LLP.
"Mike's plan was to do a development which preserved the historic property and donate a significant portion to the public," said Rollin. "To do that, he needed certain uses for the property - auto uses, higher density uses. Without these, that particular project didn't work. Now, we have an agreement to do another development, which does not contemplate preserving the structures.
"Because of the liability associated with the historic structures, it makes sense to go ahead and raze them," he said. "We need the acreage now for development."
Rollin said the town now has an obligation to issue a demolition permit or it could initiate condemnation proceedings, in which it would have to purchase the property.
"This is prime frontage on a main road. In some people's minds it's historic, in others, it's an attractive nuisance," he said. "If those structures have value to someone else and they want to buy it, that's fine."
Last month, the developer asked the Oro Valley Town Council to continue its rezoning hearing until May 19, one day after the Pima County Bond Election, when voters could approve $2 million to rehabilitate the historic ranch site.
"The timing of this legal ploy, and that's what it is, is at best suspicious. It is obvious that the developer is pushing his own agenda for a proposed auto repair shop, because of the financial backing involved. Perhaps most disturbing was the proposed cookie cutter Speedway Boulevard," aspect said Dick Eggerding, spokesman for the ad-hoc The Land Conservation Committee, which has made preserving the ranch its top priority.
"If you like planned blight, allow these treasures to be demolished and we can all hold a candlelight vigil. Is it any wonder that good developers suffer from such transparent maneuvering as this?"
Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said the developer's action to try and tear down the historic buildings was "regretful" but said if the buildings were to be demolished before May 18, it would not jeopardize the county's bond election.
Steam Pump Ranch is one of 45 projects included in question four on the bond ballot which will earmark $76 million for parks and recreation projects and $20 million for historic and cultural preservation projects.
If voters were to approve question four and there were no Steam Pump buildings to preserve, the $2 million intended for the project could be used for other similar historic preservation projects, as decided by the Oro Valley Town Council, Huckelberry said.
In a letter to Oro Valley Town Manager Chuck Sweet, Huckelberry urged the town to deny Naifeh's application and take steps to prevent demolition, which would be "a disrespectful action that demonstrates disregard for the wishes of the community."
Asked what the town intended to do, Oro Valley Mayor Paul Loomis said he preferred not to comment, except to say that the town was working on it.
"It's a shame that they want to demolish the structures," said Councilmember Bart Rochman. "It has a historical significance here in Oro Valley and I would hope we would be able to keep it as a showplace for the town. I'll do everything I can to see that it remains."
He said he couldn't offer specifics about what the town might do because he hadn't met yet with the other council members to discuss the matter.
The permit request has been referred to Town Attorney Mark Langlitz, who said he hasn't yet had a chance to review it.
Editor Mark B. Evans contributed to this story.