June 14, 2006 - Sooner than later, thousands of homes will cover the ranchlands that straddle the line between Pinal and Pima counties.
Officials two weeks ago stuck shovels in the dirt at Red Rock, where Pulte Homes will build almost 4,000 houses in the next few years.
The cattle-grazing land in unincorporated Pinal County will become Red Rock Village, the first master-planned community in southern Pinal County since Saddlebrook sprouted from the ground north of Catalina in the 1980s.
Pulte Homes in October bought the 1,000 acres from Tucson-based developer Diamond Ventures. It started with a simple question.
"They asked how many lots we wanted," recalled Shawn Chlarson, president of Pulte's Tucson division. "I said, 'We want the whole thing.'"
Diamond Ventures had only preliminary plans for the acreage, so Pulte went to work designing a community that will include 3,964 one- and two-story homes, 10 small parks and an 8,000-square-foot swimming complex. A 25-acre community park will include baseball and soccer fields and a basketball court.
Red Rock Village's homes will set just west of Interstate 10, about a 30-minute drive from Tucson and 12 miles north of Marana.
Located in the heart of the planned development, Red Rock Elementary School District's lone schoolhouse will remain intact. The district will use the building for administrative offices once a new elementary school opens, probably midway through the 2006-2007 school year, officials say.
Pulte Homes set aside 16 acres for the new school and 10 acres for a second school, both kindergarten through eighth grade. The developer also plans to build a new $1.2 million fire station for the Avra Valley Fire District on the property. Last week, that deal remained unfinished.
Chlarson called Red Rock the ideal location, suitable for the thousands of people who live in Tucson and work in Phoenix and vice versa. In 2000, about 1,200 Phoenix area residents commuted to Tucson. Almost 2,000 commuted to Phoenix from the Tucson area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Most homes in Red Rock Village will cost between $100,000 and $200,000, much more affordable than homes in incorporated areas like Oro Valley and Marana. Pulte will make the first home sales in October, Pulte Vice President of Operations Amy McReynolds said.
Pulte plans to build about 600 homes a year. The extreme western portion of the development will see the first batch of homes.
"Pulte has pioneered this area," Assistant County Manager Ken Buchanan said. "But there is a lot more activity coming."
Pinal County has plans for two swaths of state land surrounding Pulte's development. From Red Rock to San Manuel, the county has more than 60,000 lots planned.
And west of Red Rock Village lies more than 20,000 acres of the controversial La Osa Ranch. Notorious developer George Johnson as recently as 2004 planned to put more than 65,000 homes on the site, until he came under investigation by state and federal agencies.
Johnson began grading the land before he had permits or approval for his master-planned community. He also brought thousands of diseased goats to the ranch. The goats got loose and infected a treasured herd of bighorn sheep in the Silverbell Mountains. About 30 of the sheep went blind, according to environmentalists.
Johnson sold the ranch to Vistoso Partners, developer of Stone Canyon in Oro Valley. Vistoso also plans to "master plan" the land, General Manager Dick Maes said.
He wouldn't say how many homes his company plans to build.
"We're resolving some issues with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," Maes said. "We're determining how much of the property is usable and what is unusable."
Vistoso should know by the end of year how much land it can develop, he added.
The U.S. Census Bureau in March named Pinal County the seventh fastest-growing county in the nation. Estimated at 229,549, Pinal's population increased almost 30 percent since 2000.
"Pinal County is a fringe county," Buchanan said. "There's still an abundance of land and it's still one of the most affordable places."
County and Marana officials continue to discuss transportation concerns, given the growth in both jurisdictions. Developer Mike Zipprich wants to build 7,000 homes east of Interstate 10, stretching from Grier Road in Marana north into Pinal County. Zipprich's "The Villages at Tortolita" will require Marana to annex almost 400 acres into Pinal.
"Red Rock might not have a huge impact on (Marana), but all of the projects in that area will affect our coordination of transportation," Marana Assistant Town Manager Jim DeGrood said. "If we don't do it right, it won't work in the long run."
State engineers already want to widen the interstate "as big as they can get it," DeGrood noted. Led by the Arizona Department of Transportation, local jurisdictions continue to entertain the idea of a freeway loop system that would take some interstate traffic west of the Tucson Mountains.
"Maybe that starts in Red Rock," DeGrood suggested.
Mary Agguire-Vogler grew up in a farmhouse on the land Pulte Homes will turn into Red Rock Village. Now a Pinal County planning commissioner, she welcomes the growth, albeit with a bit of a cringe.
"There are houses all over, but what can you do?" Agguire-Vogler said. "You can't stop progress."
Speaking at the Red Rock Village groundbreaking, Pinal County Supervisor Lionel Ruiz probably put it best.
"The well is just beginning to flow."