Dozens voiced strong opposition to a proposed bike ranch across the street from Saguaro National Park during a conditional-use permit hearing this week.
“We like their plans, but we do not like the location,” said Ellen Barnes, who lives near the park. She was among more than 120 people who attended the Wednesday public hearing. “We wish the developers luck in any location, except the buffer zone around Saguaro National Park.”
Two long-time, east-side Tucsonans want to build the bike ranch on the 45-acre property they purchased last year for $830,000.
Of all the options for development there — such as adding 13 single-family homes on 3.3-acre parcels, which current zoning allows — an environmentally friendly bike ranch seemed the most appropriate, said property owner Kelley Matthews. She and husband Peter Lasher have lived on the east side for 30 years.
The developers’ permit application requests “minor resort” status for the property, near the corner of East Escalante Road and South Old Spanish Trail. The property is zoned as suburban ranch, which allows for “minor resort” conditional-use status without a zoning change. Minor resort allows up to 50 units, spread across at least 10 acres.
The ranch proposal spreads its units across 21 acres, and 80 percent of that parcel will remain open space, Matthews said. The site will have no perimeter fencing to avoid disrupting wildlife corridors and buildings will be LEED-certified, adhering to eco-friendly building standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council, she said.
The proposed bike ranch — geared toward both serious and leisure cyclists — would include a sports training facility with yoga and exercise rooms, a bike rental and repair shop, and a restaurant.
Pima County Deputy Chief Zoning Inspector Tom Drzazgowski said zoning staff does not recommend approval for the permit application because of vocal opposition from nearby residents, who feel they should have been included in the planning process, and concerns about increased density and two-story buildings in the neighborhood.
Hearing administrator Jim Portner said he will consider the comments and make a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors on May 27. County supervisors will make a final decision at a second public hearing, tentatively scheduled for July 1.
But the developers say their plan has been embraced by a number of their neighbors.
Steve Walker, who lives directly south of the proposed ranch, was one of a few who spoke in favor of the bike ranch, which he said furthers the goals of the buffer zone: to maintain open spaces and promote enjoyment of the national park for residents and visitors.
“The bicycling resort is not asking for a grant,” he said. “They’re asking for a variance to rebuild an outdated group of grandfathered rental units into a resort that supports our community’s vision and that is an excellent, low-impact addition within the buffer zone.”
More than 25,000 cyclists visit Saguaro National Park annually, park officials say, but bike ranch opponents worry about the impact of more cyclists visiting the bike ranch. Some opponents said the developers should pay for road improvements, like extending bike lanes, to prepare for more cyclists.
Bike ranch supporters pointed out cyclists have less impact on the environment than motorists and that Old Spanish Trail — which sees more than 8,000 cyclists in one day during El Tour de Tucson — could handle a relatively minimal increase in cyclists.
“I worry some of us that are part of this community may be on the wrong side of history. We need more people riding bikes, less people driving cars,” said Robert Smeaton, a long-time Tucson resident, during the hearing.
Dozens of attendees were part of a group called, “Save the Buffer Zone,” organized by east-side resident David Hoffman in response to the bike ranch proposal. Group members worry approval for the bike ranch will lead to more commercial development in the buffer overlay zone, which aims to guide development and maintain open spaces around the park.
Robert Newtson, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Saguaro National Park, said the permit application was “premature” during the hearing.
“We need a plan that guarantees that promises made will be implemented and that the park’s mission will be protected in perpetuity,” he said.
Matthews said she plans to meet with more neighbors to hear concerns and clear up misunderstandings about the plan.
“We weren’t aware of the amount of protest, and so many people weren’t aware of the plan until so recently,” she said after the hearing. “I think there is a fair amount of support out there but at the same time, I really do understand the concerns of the neighbors and we would happily take those into full consideration.”