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Bike ranch proposed near Saguaro National Park

Bike ranch proposed near Saguaro National Park

A proposed bike ranch near the entrance to Saguaro National Park in east Tucson will be the subject of a conditional-use permit hearing Wednesday.

The hearing — open to the public — will consider a permit application that would allow a 49-room bike ranch to open at East Escalante Road and South Old Spanish Trail. The site falls within the buffer overlay zone surrounding the park, which aims to protect open spaces and guide development, but does not prohibit commercial activity in the area.

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.

Some nearby residents chafe at the idea of increased commercial activity so close to the national park, said Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll, who represents District 4, which includes the park. Carroll sent a letter to neighbors last week encouraging them to speak up at the upcoming hearing.

“There’s a lot of concern about the domino effect (of commercialization) in the buffer zone,” he said. “I haven’t heard a lot of positive responses.”

The area is zoned as “suburban ranch.” The property owners’ permit application, submitted April 10, requests “minor resort” use, which allows for less than 50 units in a suburban ranch zone. The resort would take up about half of the owners’ 45-acre lot, which currently contains eight rental homes.

Adding more than 50 units in a resort would first require rezoning to “major resort” zone, but minor-resort use can be approved without a zoning change, said Deputy Chief Zoning Inspector Tom Drzazgowski.

Property owners Kelley Matthews and Peter Lasher purchased the lot last year. Without county approval, Matthews said they could subdivide the land into 13 single-family home sites of 3.3 acres each. But the longtime east-Tucson resident says she wanted to do something more unique with the property that would complement the natural setting.

“I am not an outsider coming in to damage or exploit the land or the neighborhood. I’m an insider with an idea from which everyone is going to benefit,” she wrote in a blog post addressed to the Twin Hills neighborhood residents.

The plan submitted to the county says the resort’s architecture will be based on Arizona dude ranches of the 1940s and the resort would use permaculture design, water harvesting and water recycling.

Across the street, the 91,000-acre Saguaro National Park is home to wildlife such as Gila monsters, bobcats, desert tortoises, coyotes and javelina. It contains an eight-mile paved loop that is a major draw for cyclists.

Park Superintendent Darla Sidles says park officials have “very great concerns” about the proposal. Increased traffic and more cyclists could be a burden on both the paved loop in the park and on Old Spanish Trail, the two-lane roadway that is the only access to the park’s visitor’s center. She’s also worried about protecting the safety of wildlife that regularly cross Old Spanish Trail and maintaining dark skies for the park’s astronomy programs.

“Our job as one of the units of the National Park System is to protect resources and provide for our visitors, and that’s why we have concerns about a proposed development immediately contiguous to the park boundary,” she said.

The bike resort plan says lighting will be “low-level and shielded in keeping with the Dark Skies Ordinance and our own desire to promote astronomy as an activity for guests.” The resort also won’t have perimeter walls to leave wildlife corridors as untouched as possible, Matthews said.

Not all neighbors disapprove.

“I think it’s going to be fantastic,” said Sue Watts, who has lived in east Tucson since 1985. She says she knows the property owners and trusts they’ll disturb the desert as little as possible and use responsible design. “They’re very earth-friendly, animal-friendly people.”

Wednesday’s public hearing will invite public comment and give the developer a chance to respond, Drzazgowski said. The hearing administrator will make a recommendation based on the discussion, and the Pima County Board of Supervisors will oversee a second public hearing, tentatively scheduled for July 1. The board will make the final decision on whether to approve the conditional-use permit.

Construction would begin in spring 2015, with an estimated completion date of summer 2016, the proposal says.

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