The Andrada Ranch between the Empire and Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson is like the Old West. The Schutz property in the Tortolita Mountains northwest of Tucson is like Saguaro National Park — West.
But these two parcels also have plenty in common. Their owners would love to sell them to Pima County as open space but the county lacks money to buy. They’re going on the private market and could be developed if sold. Yet in today’s still-depressed real estate market, they’ve had trouble attracting private buyers.
They’re hardly the only such open lands in limbo. Owners of one or two such parcels ask county officials each month if they’d be interested in buying, says Nicole Fyffe, executive assistant to Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. So many such properties exist that “I don’t even know where to start” identifying them, Fyffe says.
One such tract is an 80-acre piece of the Tortolitas owned by the Primavera Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes low-income housing, job training and other programs for low-income families. Peggy Hutchison, Primavera’s CEO, says the organization wants to sell for conservation. But Primavera may put it on the market soon to get out from under $13,000 a year in property taxes.
At the root of this land glut is the 2006-08 real estate crash and the ensuing recession that sent land prices downward. They’ve barely recovered, except for the white-hot real estate markets of Marana and Oro Valley and the Tangerine Road corridor connecting them, said Jim Marian, a commercial real estate broker who sits on Pima County’s open space advisory board.
But the county has exhausted its kitty for such parcels: its $174 million, 2004 open-space bond. The economic slump caused the county to keep putting off a new bond election until November 2015 at the earliest, underscoring that environmental protection can be difficult in a bad economy.
There are few or no other buyers today, and not much is on the horizon to change things in the next year or so, observed Marian of the County Conservation Acquisition Commission.
But, he said, “in the next two or three years, who knows?”
The land market could recover if job growth and the economy get back to normal, Marian said. Or, it could “keep puttering along” in its current state if no major new employers come along, he said.
Just last month, the 12,446-acre Whetstone Ranch near Benson that once was planned for a huge master-planned development by Pulte Homes, sold to a Phoenix company for an “unbelievably low” price of about $1,500 an acre, Marian noted. That’s after subtracting the value of $8 million in infrastructure improvements there.
The total price was $26.46 million, or $2,133 an acre. Pulte canceled its planned Anthem project in 2007, but future development is planned again.
“The county has a phenomenal opportunity to pick up property at rock bottom prices,” Marian said. “It depends on what voters decide in the next bond election. The longer voters postpone voting for bond funds, the more expensive the purchases will be.”
A home on the range
Lying 4.5 miles of winding road from Arizona 83 just south of Interstate 10, Andrada Ranch is dotted with thick stands of ocotillo, mesquite, prickly pear and yucca. Its 271 privately owned acres and 16,237 acres of state-owned grazing lands are surrounded by mountains: the Santa Ritas, the Empires, the Rincons and the Catalinas. Old Sonoita Highway leading to the ranch is dotted with signs saying, “Watch for cattle.”
Its owners put it up for sale at auction last year, but didn’t get the price they wanted and plan to try to sell again, without an auction.
The prized Davidson Canyon’s riparian area slices through the property. A Pima County-owned preserve, the Bar V Ranch, lies to its north. The proposed Rosemont Mine site in the Santa Rita Mountains lies to the south.
Last fall, The Wall Street Journal ran a photo essay on the property as the paper’s House of the Day, titling it, “Home on the Range in Arizona.”
The main ranch house’s living room contains a round-shaped fireplace and wood ceiling beams. A backyard spring gushes water into a storage tank at a rate of 22 gallons per minute.
A lower ranch house at the entrance contains a network of corrals, a foreman’s house, a bunkhouse for guests, four large stall areas, two huge arenas and a circular training pen. The number of cattle there has plummeted from 450 at its peak to 10 cows, two or three calves and two bulls today, due to the drought and the owners’ aging. But Ted and Sandra Notz still keep seven horses and three dogs there.
Now in their 70s, the Notzes wish to move to the Chicago area to be with their children and grandchildren. Ted Notz, who still practices law part time in the Chicago Loop, paid $1.4 million for the ranch back in 1987 after falling in love with Arizona.
A news release announcing last fall’s auction painted the ranch in flowery terms, saying, “Arizona’s open ranges, rugged landscape and rough and tumble settlement history harken back to a time when America’s west was still ‘wild.’ As one of the largest and last remaining ranches of its kind, the Andrada Ranch embodies that same early American spirit, while offering all the amenities and comforts of a world-class working ranch.”
This property is “perfect” for a dude or resort ranch, a corporate retreat, or a private estate, said the release, adding that a development or conservation easement also should be considered.
“The price will be south of $2 million,” said Notz, who added that a future owner will most likely develop it if the county can’t buy it. “The ranch is going to be sold.
“Maybe it won’t be developed immediately, but when Sandra moved here in 1944, Pima County had 60,000 people,” Notz said. “The irony is that with land prices having crashed, now’s the time to buy.”
Schutz’s parcel sits in a saguaro-studded landscape of 540 acres in the Tortolita Mountains, just north of the Pima-Pinal County line, accessible only by dirt roads. The most convenient, Carpenter Ranch Road, is a twisting, rutted hulk of rock, accessible mainly by jeep or ATV for the last two or three miles leading to the Schutz parcel.
The property goes up for an online-only auction on Aug. 23, with an asking price of $2.995 million and a minimum opening bid required of $1.395 million.
A wash cuts through this parcel; it’s crammed with ocotillo and prickly pear, as are surrounding mountains, ridges and lowlands. A national park here would be a great idea, says Adam Miller, a native Tucsonan who lives nearby and drove a reporter to the Schutz parcel in his blue Yamaha Rhino jeep.
But while the area is an expensive road-grading project away from being accessible to most people, Miller doesn’t discount the possibility of future development. He recalled that the Ventana Canyon and Dove Mountain areas of the Catalinas and Tortolitas, respectively, were seen as remote and inaccessible decades ago.
Even on sparsely traveled Carpenter Ranch Road, Miller has seen traffic there triple in the three years he has been there, he said.
The auction notice, from the Wisconsin-based real estate firm Micoley.com, labels this parcel a “prime piece of territory for developers looking to add to their portfolio — it is, after all, located near the prestigious Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain Hotel and Golf Club, along with miles of hiking trails throughout the mountains. (The property lies about 5 miles north of the Ritz-Carlton).
“Though the property is currently zoned agricultural and has a natural grazing land lease that runs through October 31, 2017, the land can be used for a luxury housing development...”
David Schutz of Madison bought this parcel in 2006 for $4.6 million at the real estate market’s peak, said Rex Fletcher, the property’s listing agent. Schutz hoped to secure a land swap with Pima County to obtain a more developable parcel, Fletcher said.
Failing that — the land swap never went through — Schutz saw the parcel is a potential host to 10- to 20-acre homesites and a golf course, but the real estate crash occurred and made that idea a pipe dream.
In 2008, Tucson real estate broker Diane Rodgers wrote a brief report for Schutz valuing the parcel at $18,000 an acre, based on prices for several comparable properties. Today’s minimum asking price is $2,583 an acre.
Schutz has “had it on and off for sale for at least the last three years. He has had several offers that never closed,” Fletcher said. “He’s been extremely frustrated with the property and would like to move it.”
If Schutz can get $1,500 an acre, “he should take it and run,” said Starr de Varona, a Long Realty realtor who has worked and lived in southern Pinal County for 20 years. “It’s going to be 10 years before that land is developed.”
‘A missing piece’
Primavera’s parcel lies in a canyon about 1.5 miles northwest of the Ritz-Carlton. State land is to the parcel’s north and northwest. About 200 acres of county-owned open space adjoins it on the south and southeast.
“It was a donation — a bequest for Primavera and as soon as we got it, several years ago, I started talking to Pima County to see if they would be interested,” the foundation’s Hutchison recalled. “We were thinking, wouldn’t it be great if the county could add to it. It’s a missing piece.
“We’d love to contribute to the conservation area ... but also get a little bit of money to carry out programs for people in the community who are experiencing homelessness and poverty,” she said. “I keep going back to the county. It’s been challenging to us. We’re getting to the point where we can’t afford to keep paying that much money on it in taxes.”
Fyffe said that the county has also gotten owner interest in selling for open space the 90-acre, historic Rancho Las Lomas parcel in the Tucson Mountain foothills that recently went on the market for $4.89 million.
The parcel’s prime attraction is 13 stone houses built mainly in the 1930s and 1940s. But its western half contains mostly desert that would be an excellent addition to the county’s adjoining Feliz Paseos preserve — which the county bought years ago from Las Lomas’ owner, Fyffe said.
Let’s make a deal, pima
Carolyn Campbell, director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, would like to see the county try to strike deals with some of these landowners as it did with owners of Marley Ranch south of Green Valley and the Painted Hills property in the Tucson Mountain foothills.
In both cases, using different methods, the county agreed to offer options or other up-front cash for the property today and to buy the property outright when and if an open-space bond is approved.
For Painted Hills, the county will use money from a separate environmental enhancement fund to buy it if an open-space bond doesn’t pass.
“People don’t understand that it’s not just about preserving land for the future,” Campbell said. “You have to have tens if not hundreds of millions to get there. It’s not like you can compare the costs of a sheriff’s substation to that of open space. You’re not doing brick and mortar. Raw land costs a lot of money.”
The county’s Fyffe doesn’t rule out more of these arrangements but says it wouldn’t be wise to do it routinely.
“I don’t think voters and the conservation commission would want their hands tied going into a bond election knowing we have too many of these things set up,” Fyffe said. “I think we would have to be judicious.”