Historic Resource Study
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Chapter 10
Buried Pasts

If you search the web for "Rio Rico, Arizona," most of the hits are real estate promotions that toss in a little garbled history the way teenagers add fruit punch to Everclear. Take, for example, the webpage of the Nogales-Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce. "Long before Geronimo and Will Rogers walked these trails, Rio Rico was home to a pre-historic race known as 'The Forgotton [sic] Ones,'" the webpage informs us. "When mastodons and swamps disappeared, sometime between the birth of Christ and 400 AD, they gave up their caves for primitive dwellings. An 18-acre village constructed by the Forgotton [sic] Ones was rediscovered in 1954. Fortunately the village was partially rebuilt by the Upper Pima Indians, providing the first link to modern history." [1]

On a muggy day in late July 2004, I turn off Interstate 19 onto the Tumacácori exit and head east down Santa Gertrudis Lane. Storms are building on the southern horizon in Mexico, but the lane is a dark arbor of huge mesquites that nearly block out the sky. On either side an impenetrable bosque (forest) of mesquite, acacia, and hackberry closes in around me. I can imagine a PR hack conjuring "The Forgotton Ones" stalking mastodons bogged down in a muddy swamp nearby. But the bosque primeval thrives on treated wastewater from Nogales. Ironically, the riparian vegetation along this stretch of the Upper Santa Cruz was probably never as lush as it is now, at least not since the end of the last ice age, when mammoths did indeed roam the region.

Shifting the Southwest Center's aging Toyota into four-wheel drive, I roll through muddy puddles and the Santa Cruz River. Gated lanes lead through the trees to ranch houses and fields where fat horses graze. Did Simenon cast his cold compulsive eye on the drunken antics of socialites behind those walls half a century ago?

But when I leave the floodplain, the ghosts of Tol Pendleton and Hubert Merryweather fade as I turn onto paved Pendleton Road. Tales of Santa Booze Lane seems almost as fantastical as "The Forgotton Ones" stalking mastodons at the time of Christ. Heading south I enter another space from a more recent time: the old Rio Rico, the legacy of Gulf American and GAC. On whim, I climb up a ridge of the San Cayetano Mountains along Ruta Camaron (Shrimp Route). There are several homes in the distance below San Cayetano Peak, but Ruta Camaron leads nowhere, its pavement eroding into high desert. Hundreds of miles of such roads snake up the western slopes of the San Cayetanos and along both sides of Josephine Canyon to the north. Perhaps a couple from Michigan or Nebraska bought a lot up here in the late 1960s. Did they ever visit it? Are their four decades of unpaid back taxes piling up in the Santa Cruz County Treasurer's Office?

On my way down, I skirt rockslides and shrubby mesquite and intersect Pendleton again on Calle Pulpo (Octopus Road). Another hack from Rio Rico must have sat down with a Spanish dictionary when these imaginary subdivisions were being platted, searching for themes that captured a whiff of Old Mexico and the Sea of Cortez.

The new Rio Rico, on the other hand, is booming. I drive past the Rio Rico Fire District and the Rio Rico Fitness Center to the Rio Rico Country Club along the lower stretches of Sonoita Creek. Then I take Avenida Coatimundi to the Rio Rico Community Center and The Villages at Rio Rico, a series of high-density neighborhoods. I follow Rio Rico Drive into the southern foothills of the San Cayetanos, past pseudo Mediterranean villas with tennis courts and more modest brick or block homes on smaller lots.

The new Rio Rico rises at the juncture of Sonoita Creek and the Santa Cruz, where mission herds from the visita of Calabasas once grazed. This is where Colonel C.P. Sykes wanted to build his gateway to Mexico. And this is where Manuel María Gándara established his hacienda after he stole the Tumacácori land grant from the O'odham. If there were any justice in history, Calabasas would be part of the Tumacácori District of the Tohono O'odham Nation. Instead of Rio Rico Resort with its par 72 Trent Jones, Sr. golf course snaking up the Sonoita floodplain, there might be a glittering casino luring snowbirds and Sonorans with slot machines and nostalgia acts.

But even though the O'odham held onto their grant until 1848, at least five years after the Sonoran elite had abandoned grants eventually confirmed by the U.S. government, there is no Tumacácori District of the Tohono O'odham Nation. [2] The O'odham did not speak the language of lawyers, and no lawyers spoke for them in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, when the fates of the Tumacácori land grant and Baca Float No. 3 were being determined. They became the "Forgotton Ones." Baca Float No. 3 and Rio Rico squatted on their lands.

Avatar and Modern Rio Rico

For two decades following GAC's bankruptcy in 1975, Rio Rico remained a phantom development. The Rio Rico Resort continued to do business, but the scars of the roads up the San Cayetanos bore stark witness to Gulf American and GAC's big dreams and hollow promises. After a $100 million lawsuit was settled in 1974, U.S. District Judge James A. Walsh ordered GAC to make sure every lot the company sold had roads and utilities. He also demanded that GAC exchange lots in Rio Rico's core at Calabasas for thousands of lots to the north where development was as likely as rain in May. [3] A bankruptcy court in Miami authorized GAC to do so, and the owners of 1,120 lots northeast of Tubac were given the chance to trade for lots in developed areas or areas that were to have utilities by 1979. [4] By 1979, GAC was even promising to build new homes in its core of 700 acres, where 300 homes had already been constructed and 700 to 800 residents lived. [5]

But even after GAC metamorphosed into Avatar Holdings, Inc., the current owner of Rio Rico Properties, attrition, not development, characterized the project in the 1980s and early 1990s. A group of Scottsdale investors led by John Ratliff purchased 16,000 acres of Rio Rico at a bankruptcy auction. The Ratliff group contracted with Phoenix-based First United Realty to sell forty-acre parcels in the 5,000-acre Tubac Foothills Ranch east of Tumacácori and the 5,000-acre Sonoita Creek Ranch to the south. The Ratliff group also sold 5,000 acres to the Arizona State Parks Department, which incorporated the parcel into its Sonoita Creek Natural Area. Avatar's Rio Rico empire shrank from 55,000 to 36,000 acres in the process. [6]

Then, in the mid-1990s, the corporation brought in developers from California and changed strategies. By 1997, Avatar had largely abandoned the sluggish lot-selling business. Under the leadership of Guy Tobin, who became president of Rio Rico Properties, the company created The Villages at Rio Rico, where customers could choose from 14 home plans ranging from the $80,000s to $150,000s. The homes could be situated at thirty-eight different elevations from Sonoita Creek up the San Cayetanos' southern slopes. [7] Within three years, Avatar had built and sold about 250 homes. [8]

Its 255-acre Rio Rico South Industrial Park also neared build out as produce companies and suppliers of maquiladoras, the border assembly plants located in Nogales, Sonora, constructed warehouses along I-19. [9] Thereafter, Tobin announced that Rio Rico's commercial development would largely be restricted to restaurants, services, and retail at the interchange of Rio Rico Drive and the freeway. Tobin planned to further concentrate residential growth within a 3,300-acre "core" that was "intact and contiguous." "We are hoping to master plan a senior-oriented community around the golf course," Tobin declared. [10] In 2002, Avatar even sold the Rio Rico Resort & Country Club for $5.49 million to American Property Management Corporation, one of the largest hotel companies in the United States. "We've been looking for a real hotel operator to come in and invest money to take it to the next level," Tobin noted. "It's not part of our core business." [11] Rio Rico built and sold homes. Its epicenter, and its future, would continue to be located on the old mission estancia (stockranch) of Calabasas.

Like Gulf American and GAC, Avatar is headquartered in Florida. According, to Reuters Abridged Business Summary, "Its assets consist primarily of real estate in the states of Florida and Arizona. In the Florida communities of Harbor Islands, Poinciana, Solivita, Bellalago and Cory Lake Isles, the Arizona community of Rio Rico and the properties in Ocala Springs, and Banyan Bay, Florida, Avatar owns more than 18,000 acres of developed, partially developed or developable residential, commercial and industrial property." Avatar Holdings, Inc. is traded on the NASDAQ as AVTR. Gerald Kelfer, its president and CEO, makes $5.58 million a year. Jonathen Fels, president of Avatar Properties Inc., makes $2.44 million. [12]

Unlike Gulf American and GAC, however, Avatar seems to be a success story. For the first three months of 2004, both revenues and expenses were more than 60 percent higher than the same period in 2003. "The increase in revenues is attributable to increased closings at Poinciana and Rio Rico, as well as closing at Bellalago and Cory Lake Isles," its quarterly report to the Security and Exchange Commission states. [13] Avatar also appears to operate within the limits of the law with a longterm commitment to southern Arizona. In 2003, Rio Rico Properties sold 259 acres of riparian habitat along four miles of Sonoita Creek to Arizona State Parks for $1.5 million from the Heritage Fund, whose revenues come from the Arizona Lottery. The corridor extends from the juncture of the Santa Cruz upstream to the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area west of Patagonia Lake. [14]

Because of Avatar's profitability and civic gestures, Big Builder magazine named it top homebuilder in the United States for Most Innovative Product Design for both Homes and Communities in 2003. The company came in second for Most Admired Builder in the nation. [15] Stories circulate that Avatar employed some of Gulf American and GAC's hard-sell tactics in the 1990s, when it would fly in customers, many of them Koreans from southern California, and try to sell them lots at inflated prices. But those tactics apparently are a thing of the past, at least for now.

The hard sell may not be necessary any more. By 2004, unincorporated Rio Rico had an estimated population of 14,000 to 16,000. Some were retirees, but others worked in the produce warehouses and other NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement)-related businesses on both sides of the border. Homebuyers included managers of maquiladoras and agents in the rapidly swelling Border Patrol. The community had grown by about 10 percent a year since 1994, and most estimates of future growth in the Nogales area identified Rio Rico as the prime target. [16] Rio Rico had become not just a resort or retirement community but a middle-class bedroom community for Ambos Nogales as well. And even though the boom days of the maquiladora phenomenon seemed to be over—employment in Nogales, Sonora factories dropped by 35 percent in 2003 as companies found cheaper labor in China and Southeast Asia—NAFTA seemed to be picking up the slack. [17]

Metro Tucson and the I-19 Corridor

Rio Rico's boom is part of a pincer movement along I-19. To the north, metropolitan Tucson marches southward, gobbling up private and State Trust Lands in the middle Santa Cruz Valley between Tucson and Green Valley. Ever since the 1960s, Tucson's growth has been increasingly land-extensive. In 1930, when Tucson's population was 32,506, there were 4,526.7 persons per square mile in the city. Densities rose slowly through the 1960 census, and then began to fall: 3306.0 in 1970; 3344.1 in 1980; 2573.3 in 1990; and 2,490.7 in 2000. In 1990, a staggering 35 percent of land within the incorporated limits of the City of Tucson remained undeveloped. Meanwhile, the population of metropolitan Tucson kept climbing, exceeding 800,000 by 2003. Because land is generally cheaper on the edges of an urban center, demand and the housing market have provided bigger lots in new subdivisions, not greater urban densities and infilling within existing municipal boundaries. The result is urban sprawl and exurban leapfrogging as nearly 5,000 acres of desert a year are bulldozed (Sheridan 2003).

A consensus seems to be emerging among City of Tucson and Pima Association of Governments prognosticators that eastern Pima County (the Tohono O'odham Nation controls most of the county to the west) will not reach the limits of its water supply until 1.7 million people have settled there by 2050. In other words, the population will double during the next fifty years. If Pima County's visionary Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan goes into effect, much of that growth will be channeled south and southeast of metro Tucson because there are fewer endangered, threatened, or vulnerable species of animals and plants to provoke lawsuits and raise the costs of development. [18]

Tucson's southward sprawl is already crashing against the shores of the Upper Santa Cruz River Valley. Private lands (156,455 acres; 35 percent) and State Trust Lands (212,745 acres; 47 percent) compose 82 percent of the watershed (449,684 acres) (SDCP Our Common Ground 2000:40). State Trust Lands can and are being auctioned off to developers at a rapidly increasing rate. [19] The expansion of Green Valley has already spun off several high-end subdivisions including Rancho Sahuarita and Quail Creek in the western foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains (Sheridan 2003).

Meanwhile, the formerly agrarian community of Sahuarita is aggressively annexing land and courting developers. Sahuarita incorporated in 1994, when it had a population of 2,159 residents. Since then, its numbers have more than doubled to an estimated 5,455 in July 2002. In 1996, the Pima Association of Governments projected a population of 23,374 in 2050. That projection is probably low. Municipal planners anticipate that Sahuarita Road will become a major corridor of residential development as metro Tucson's population continues to increase. This will intensify development along the I-19 corridor in the Green Valley-Sahuarita areas.

There are acts of resistance against this relentless urban, suburban, and exurban blitzkrieg. One of the more important took place at Canoa, once the headquarters of the Manning family's legendary ranching empire. In 1999, a coalition of environmentalists, neighborhood activists, and astronomers from the Smithsonian's Whipple Observatory on Mount Hopkins in the Santa Ritas convinced the Pima County Board of Supervisors to deny Fairfield Homes' request for a rezoning on the southern half of the San Ignacio de la Canoa land grant. It was the first time in twenty-five years that the Board—by a vote of 4-1—had rejected a major rezoning (Hadley 2000; Sheridan 2000). A compromise ramrodded by the Pima County Administrator allowed Fairfield to build high-density homes and a golf course west of I-19 and to develop commercial properties along an eastern strip of the freeway at the Canoa Road interchange. About 4,800 acres, or 80 percent of Canoa Ranch, in contrast, remained in Rural Homestead zoning, one house per 4.3 acres. Pima County then purchased that portion of Canoa Ranch, including its abandoned and deteriorating headquarters, in 2001 (Sheridan 2003). Plans call for a county park and possibly a historical museum there.

But Canoa is one small island in a tidal wave. Within the next twenty years, an unbroken chain of subdivisions and shopping centers may stretch from the San Xavier District of the Tohono O'odham Nation to the international border. In May 2004, voters approved the sale of $174 million of Open Space bonds to purchase or acquire conservation easements on biologically sensitive lands in Pima County. Some of those funds may preserve other islands of open space in the Upper Santa Cruz Valley north of the county line. If not, Rio Rico may simply become a link in the development chain.

Tumacácori National Historical Park

Tumacácori National Historical Park forms three other islets of open space. Tumacácori National Monument was originally established in 1908 under the Antiquities Act. Until the 1970s, when six acres of fiesta ground were added, the monument rested on ten acres donated, first by homesteader Carmen Mendez, and then by the Bouldin family after Baca Float No. 3 drove Mendez and other homesteaders off their lands. Then, in 1990, Congress approved the acquisition of an additional twenty-two acres containing the mission visita of San Cayetano de Calabasas and 7.76 acres surrounding Mission Los Santos Angeles de Guevavi, changing the name to Tumacácori National Historical Park. Both Calabasas and Guevavi remain hidden by mesquite, and closed to the public, except during guided tours.

The biggest expansions came in 2004, thanks to the determination of Superintendent Ann Rasor. The year before, Congress authorized $1.49 million to purchase the 90-acre Mission Ranch to the south. Internal National Park Service funds enabled the park to buy 220 acres north and east of Mission Tumacácori. These dramatic expansions link the park to the Santa Cruz River and incorporate portions of the mission orchard, fields, and acequia madre (main irrigation canal) into park boundaries. Research is already being conducted to identify and reestablish mission-era fruit tree stock in the orchard. In the future, visitors may also have the opportunity to see other heirloom crops like wheat and fava beans in mission fields and perhaps even churro sheep and corriente cattle grazing the floodplain of the river. A shard of the mission's corporate community—a very small shard of the 1807 Tumacácori land grant—has therefore been preserved.

A View from Calabasas

David Yubeta and I poke through the adobe ruins of Calabasas, which is protected from sun and rain by a metal-roofed ramada surrounded by chain link fence and concertina wire. David is a native of the southern Arizona, head of maintenance at Tumacácori National Historical Park, and one of the leading adobe conservators in the nation.

For David, these adobe walls, where Jesuits and Franciscan missionaries once celebrated mass and where Gándara's employees took refuge from Apache attacks, are living, breathing fabrics of the past. His colleague, Park Historian Don Garate, puts names on the people who passed in and out of these walls. Through Mission 2000, a computerized data base of mission records, we know the individuals—O'odham, Indeh (Apache), Yoemem (Yaqui), Basque, Castilian, mestizo, mulatto—who were baptized, married, and buried here. The staff of Tumacácori is doing its best to preserve the mission past and make it come alive for future generations of southern Arizonans.

But the future belongs to the subdivisions crawling up the hills around us and the warehouses swelling with fruits and vegetables from Mexico below. To the semis rolling north and south along I-19. To the hundreds of undocumented Mexicans and Central Americans who trudge north through the valley each night risking death by heat stroke to search for work al otro lado (on the other side). To the tourists, drug runners, contractors, real estate salesmen, and retirees. The historical geography of capitalism in the early twenty-first century is now dancing to an international tune as NAFTA floods the border with exports and maquilas in Nogales, Sonora, continue to exploit the labor of young women to assemble clothing, electrical equipment, and medical supplies. In a sense, Colonel C.P. Sykes has been vindicated. Reconceptualized as Rio Rico, Calabasas has finally become a gateway to Mexico.

Water will be the only limiting factor. As Chapter One points out, the Upper Santa Cruz River Valley consists of four subbasins—Nogales, Rio Rico, Tubac, and Amado—that form pockets of alluvium from the border to the conjunction of the Santa Cruz and Sopori Wash to the north. The water stored in that alluvium provides the water for homes and businesses. The Nogales International Wastewater Treatment Plant may be able to process 1.7 million gallons of sewage a day from Ambos Nogales, but no one is going to drink it.

During most of the period covered in this book, upstream water use did not have much impact upon either surface flow or groundwater supplies from Calabasas to Tubac. But as Nogales, Arizona, continues to grow, stacking up along the narrow ravines that feed the Santa Cruz, the aquifer of the Nogales subbasin will strain to meet its needs. According to hydrologists Leonard and Philip Halpenny (1991:1), the Nogales subbasin is divided into four "microbasins"—"a shoestring aquifer of alluvial deposits"—that extend from the border to Guevavi, where Jesuit missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino established his first mission among the O'odham in southern Arizona. Kino did so because the "bedrock boundary" of Guevavi Narrows forced water to the surface, creating a stretch of perennial flow. In 1991, the city of Nogales purchased 490 acres of bottomland with its attendant water rights from Ralph Wingfield at Guevavi Ranch (Halpenny and Halpenny 1991). Now that Rio Rico is drawing more and more water from the Rio Rico subbasin, however, Nogales is blocked to the north. Despite the ability of these aquifers to recharge quickly after heavy rains, draw downs during dry seasons and prolonged droughts will mean water scarcity, water rationing, and water conflict.

The O'odham had no groundwater pumps. They learned to live within the surface flow of the Santa Cruz. So did the homesteaders. But their pasts are buried now beneath the interstate, the warehouses, the tile roofs. No real estate promoter or chamber of commerce is going to exhume them. Land fraud and dispossession do not sell.

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Last Updated: 12-Mar-2007