The land is cleared of all vegetation but one saguaro.

Three-foot-high mounds of fill dirt are piled up on the one-acre property, at the base of "A" Mountain. In May, the first two of a dozen upscale town houses are expected to be standing there.

For Mario Coelho, one of the development's two partners, Sentinel Vistas will be an inner-city showcase. The homes will cost $430,000 to $699,000 — because the development's quality will be high, he said: granite countertops, travertine bathtubs and showers, polished concrete floors and high-end ceiling fans. The colors will resemble those of original Tucson barrios: "vibrant, but not loud; we're using the same theme, but toning it down."

The first town house will have an elevator; the second, a dumbwaiter. The other partner is Richard Spreyser, a commercial real estate broker.

For neighbors, the prospect of a new development sparks a mix of acceptance, regret and frustration, given its location and the sensitivity of the surrounding desert. The project lies just north of an existing single-family home development of nearly 50 homes and across Sentinel Peak Road from an older neighborhood, Panorama Village Estates.

Here are some questions and answers about Sentinel Vistas:

Q. Why is it being developed?

A. The property along Sentinel Peak Road a mile west of Downtown has had zoning permitting townhomes for many years. City officials and the Arizona Open Land Trust tried a couple of years ago to buy it. But the city had no money.

Q. Why start this development during a bad housing market?

A. Coelho said he believes the market should calm down and possibly turn around by May.

"We'd already bought the property. We started into it, and we were well into it when the market started to change," he said.

Q. Who's going to pay top dollar for these townhomes?

A. People already living or working in the Downtown and University of Arizona area, he said: lawyers, doctors, judges and city, state and federal officials, not to mention out- of-town retirees. A few calls have come from Canadians interested in retiring down here, he said.

Q. How will this project deal with energy use?

A. The developers will seek certification from the non-profit U.S. Green Building Council that their project meets the standards of the green building rating system known as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, LEED for short. Foam-encased concrete block walls will be 9 inches thick. Paints will have no toxic organic chemicals. A tankless water heater, which comes on when residents turn on the hot water, will heat the water instantly, using far less energy than a conventional hot water heater.

Q. What happened to the native plants?

A. The site had about 40, and the developers are transplant-ing about 30 — including 18 palo verde trees and 10 ocotillos. The saguaro, 10 feet tall and 60 years old, either will stay where it is or be moved depending on where the buildings go, Coelho said. The remaining plants were permanently removed because they were too large to transplant, had root balls that could split in half if transplanted or had roots or stems spreading too far from the main trunk, said the developers' report to the city of Tucson. Developers will plant at least two native trees for every tree transplanted or removed.

Q. What about traffic?

A. The developer is paying the city $1,000 per home for improvements to Sentinel Peak Road, on top of the city's road- impact fee that varies according to each home's value, and has structured the project to have one entrance and one exit to that road, not 12 driveway exits.

Q. The neighbors are split. Why?

A. Jill Hofer, an activist leading an effort to save another 27 acres at the mountain's base, said she would rather see this parcel stay natural but can live with the development because she believes the landowners have made every effort to create a quality product and to communicate with neighbors. She lives in Panorama Village Estates to the west. Its former Homeowners Association president, Ellen Paige, was less favorable.

"That property was inevitably going to be developed. I think that it's hard to see more desert being destroyed, especially right here on the flanks of 'A' Mountain. But I guess my reaction is more resignation. I guess I tried to make myself feel better by thinking about infill as a good thing," said Paige, who has lived there 11 years.

Another area resident, Norm Richmond, said he is not against the project when it isn't going to obstruct his views or add much traffic and will increase property values.

"The attitude that 'I'm here, no one else can come,' seems to prevail too much with too many people," said Richmond, a 26-year resident. "If we all had had that, I wouldn't be in Tucson."

Q. The big development to the south, Sentinel Shadows — how do those folks feel?

A. "Most people in this area are not happy with it," said Terry Mertins, president of the Sentinel Shadows Home Owners Association, because that project has 47 single-family homes compared with smaller town houses for Sentinel Vistas. A biggest concern is views. The two-story Sentinel Shadows townhomes can reach as high as 25 feet.

In reply, Coelho noted that his townhomes will be spread farther apart than the single-family homes, which range from 3 to 12 feet apart from one another.

"In ours, each building will be 15 to 20 feet separated from one another. It will be much nicer and have less density," said Coelho, adding that the townhomes will be below the city's 25-foot height limit.

online info

Promotional information about Sentinel Vistas is at the developers' Web site, www.sentinelvistas.com.

● Contact reporter Tony Davis at 806-7746 or tdavis@azstarnet.com