July 27, 2005 - Custom homes resting on lots averaging two acres continue to sprout in Canyon Pass, where roads wind high into the Tortolita Mountains and towering saguaros rise above The Gallery Golf Club.
Below this upscale 2,000-acre gated community within Dove Mountain, developers are on a fast track building homes throughout subdivisions such as The Preserve, where a sea of wooden skeletons - now only identified by a series of numbers spray-painted on their sides - shows evidence of future high-desert inhabitants.
Near the entrance to Dove Mountain, construction crews are gearing up to scrape dirt at the northeast corner of Tangerine Road and Dove Mountain Boulevard, where Cottonwood Properties plans to break ground later this summer on a 22-acre neighborhood convenience center known as Dove Mountain Centre. The center will open next fall, anchored by a 54,000-square-foot upscale Bashas' supermarket.
Less than two miles down the road, another site outside of Dove Mountain is already marked with a sign for "The Shoppes at Tangerine Crossing," which is expected to be anchored by an upscale Fry's supermarket at the northeast corner of Tangerine and Thornydale roads. Several other commercial developments are expected to inhabit the north sideline of Tangerine Road in the coming years, starting at Dove Mountain Boulevard and heading east toward Camino De Oeste.
"Dove Mountain has gone from being a community in its early development to being a maturing community, and we're really seeing that now in the volume of activity and the completion of amenities," said David Mehl, president and owner of Cottonwood Properties. "It's really developing as we planned, with an emphasis on the open space, the environment and outdoor living. We really worked hard at that."
According to Cottonwood Properties, the proposed Dove Mountain Centre has attracted interest from a wide array of commercial businesses, including a spa and salon, fitness center, financial institution, restaurant, convenience store and drug store. Additional stores anticipated in the area include a dry cleaner, a mail and packaging store, casual eateries, a full-service real estate company and an insurance agency.
About one-third complete, Marana's 6,200-acre master-planned private resort community known as Dove Mountain is expected to have 6,500 homes and feature 90 holes of championship golf. But the community is already coming of age.
"The thing I most enjoy is to see how much people enjoy living there, and you can really see how the outdoor amenities - the walking and hiking, and the outdoor beauty - is what continues to attract people," Mehl said.
So many people have been attracted to the diversity of desert vegetation and wildlife, canyons, washes and arroyos that Dove Mountain has to offer, in fact, that developers have started a lottery for the last homes being built in the age-restricted community of Heritage Highlands, where more than 100 houses are still being constructed by U.S. Home.
Larry Steckler and his wife, Lorraine, moved to Dove Mountain in October after living in Las Vegas for the past 12 years. In Nevada, the only state in the country growing faster than Arizona, the Stecklers said they witnessed the ills of urban sprawl. It was the effort to preserve the natural desert that attracted them to Dove Mountain, where a nearby 2,400-acre desert preserve is found at the foot of the Tortolitas.
The Stecklers admit the commercial development coming to Dove Mountain is a double-edged sword, but though they continue driving nine miles to get to the nearest supermarket or gas station, they welcome new growth - as long as it's planned right.
"No matter how you cut it, you can't stop change," Larry said. "We knew there was a certain amount of control over expansion and they were planning on keeping it quiet."
The Stecklers are living in Heritage Highlands while their home - house No. 173, according to the number spray painted on it - is being constructed in The Preserve subdivision. Since they contracted to have their home built for $429,000 in December, the couple said they've already seen the home rise in value to $575,000.
Lorraine, who sells homes for Long Realty, said it's been easy to sell something she really likes.
"There's a lot Dove Mountain has to offer," she said. "This is where we're going to spend the rest of our life. This is it."
A new sports facility and fitness center recently opened across from The Gallery Golf Club, featuring a wide range of recreational opportunities, from spas to basketball courts to a large outdoor pool. Meanwhile, perched above the lake and fairway of the 725-yard ninth hole of The Gallery North Course, houses in The Cottages development are being sold, and the nearby Toll Brothers development also is underway. Farther west, more upper-end custom homes are in the planning stages.
Near The Gallery South Course, AF Sterling Homes is still building houses in the subdivision of Dos Lagos, where three- and four-bedroom homes range from 3,052 to 4,334 square feet.
A 250-room luxury resort is planned in the northern part of Dove Mountain, featuring two additional 18-hole golf courses. Talks of a Ritz-Carlton being built there have been rumored, but Mehl said he's still in negotiations.
Mehl founded Cottonwood Properties in 1975 with his late brother George. The firm has since developed more than $400 million worth of real estate projects in the Tucson area, including master-planned communities, retail centers, offices and the premier resort community of Westin La Paloma.
Mehl first owned the land that is now Dove Mountain in 1985. Just as the Hohokam Indians once excavated complex canal systems and dug wells to tap underground water sources hundreds of years ago, a Missourian named Eugene "Cush" Cayton was the land's steward throughout most of the 1900s and established the T Bench Bar Ranch there. Cayton and his family ranched the land until 1984, when the land was passed on to its new steward, Mehl, who has converted it into a modern resort community.
Marana Councilwoman Carol McGorray, who has lived in Dove Mountain for almost eight years, since its early beginnings, said she's enthusiastic about the way the town and developers have managed to steer growth in the area.
"People move here and they are absolutely delighted to be here," she said. "The pulse that I get from my neighbors is that they think the town's doing a marvelous job in planning and being foresighted. I know they are looking forward to the commercial coming in."
McGorray lived in Avra Valley for several years before moving to Dove Mountain. What attracted her most was the golf course, she said, adding that she also needed some elbow room.
"I just couldn't move into a place where I couldn't see the natural desert. This neighborhood provided it for me," she said.
It was through Dove Mountain that McGorray got involved on the Marana Town Council in 2001, after her neighbors encouraged her to seek election. She was one of the original members of the Dove Mountain Civic Group that started in Heritage High-lands and has since spread throughout other subdivisions in Dove Mountain.
As the community continues to grow, so does membership in the civic group, which now has about 110 active members and serves primarily as an informational body to Dove Mountain residents regarding local issues, said Steve Wacker, the group's president.
As the community has matured, so has the dynamic of its population, which is becoming more and more capable of producing a new crop of future town leaders. With homes in Dove Mountain ranging from $200,000 to $10 million, Marana could see a wide range of former businessmen with some extra time on their hands knocking on its door in the years to come.
Already, earlier this month, two Dove Mountain residents - Wacker and Larry Steckler - sought a vacancy on the town council.
Steckler, a retired magazine publisher, said even though he didn't get the spot, he's not going to fade away from town politics.
"By the time election time rolls around again, I definitely intend to run and represent this side of Dove Mountain," he said.
Wacker said he now plans to seek a vacancy on the town's Planning and Zoning Commission.
Gary Borax, a retired computer systems developer from Chicago and the hiking coordinator for the Dove Mountain Civic Group, said he has closely watched the town's plan to build a 23-mile trail system through the Tortolitas that would offer opportunities for public hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding.
"There's a lot that will happen and will happen quickly I'm sure," McGorray said, commenting on the overall growth in Dove Mountain. "I think it's going well, I really do. I think the shopping center will be an asset and, of course, we'll be talking about Tangerine Road a lot. There's a lot on the board out there and there are decisions to be made."