The Gila County Planning and Zoning Commission approved a proposal last week for a 138-acre adult retirement community, complete with a nine-hole golf course, 15 miles east of Payson on Highway 260.
Meanwhile, angry residents of the nearby subdivisions of Tonto Village, Thompson Draws 1 and 2, and Bear Flats were plotting strategies with a hired political consultant to stop the development.
A Phoenix company called the Landstar Group has proposed a community called SettleInn at Pine Meadows, Gila County P & Z Director Terry Smith said.
The company wants to build 536 site-built "cabins," a 20,000-square-foot activity center, a club house, a swimming pool, tennis courts and a golf course. The largest lots would be three-quarters of an acre, the smallest would be 6,000 sq. ft. The number of home sites may be reduced by as many as 80 by the time the plan goes up for final review by the Gila County Board of Supervisors some time in April.
Asked for comment on his company's proposal, Landstar representative David Woods would only say that, "At this time, I really can't give you any kind of details because we haven't finalized things."
The voice of opposition
Some of the development's neighboring homeowners, and former state senator and political consultant Stan Barnes, who was hired by the property owners to oppose the development, were eager to discuss the project.
"My clients' problems can best be summed up this way," Barnes said. "The proposed development is a high-density development right in the middle of the Tonto National Forest.
"It's an urban development in a rural setting, and we believe strongly that it's bad for the Payson area, bad for the traffic in that area, bad for light pollution, noise and dust pollution, crime. It's just not an appropriate site plan for that acreage.
"So far, we've lost the first round, at the P & Z level," Barnes said. "But we think there is a very good chance that (the board of supervisors) will make the right decision ..."
The Pine Meadows plan
The proposed site for the SettleInn at Pine Meadows is about one mile off Highway 260, between Donnelly Stables and Kohl's Ranch Lodge on road No. 405 where it stretches south toward Bear Flats.
"The surrounding area is all national forest, and on the borderline is Thompson Draw 1, where there are a few dozen cabins that have been there for over 50 years," Barnes said.
"It's going to be a big fight," Barnes said. "Developers generally have resources and economic incentives; what we have is tradition and a protection of the local area view."
The only reason the project has gone as far as it has, Barnes said, is because Gila County doesn't have a general plan.
"If the county had a general plan, I can't imagine that it would allow a high-density, urban development in the middle of the national forest next to a low-density rural area."
City lights or starry skies
Retiree Charlie Jones loves the Rim country so much that he bought a summer cabin in Thompson Draw in 1982, then purchased a winter home in Payson and moved here from the Valley in 1993.
"You don't want to know what I think about this proposal," he said. "It wouldn't be printable."
Eventually, though, he came up with a printable opinion.
"It would be a scandalous use of the property, because it's so incompatible with what we have now," he said. "This is the only piece of private land in the area.
"Right now, we're averaging about one cabin for every two acres. And here they want to put 536 residential units on 138 acres. On top of that, they want to put in streets, sidewalks and (130) street lights where we now have none. That will have an awful impact on our night sky."
Jones also is worried about water, or more precisely, the lack of it.
"Each (of the existing) subdivisions has its own well and shares the same vein of water," he said. "Any wells they drill will take water from us. And we've been told that this water supply is not self-replenishing. When it goes dry, that's it."
As Jones surveyed the proposed development area, he spotted eight elk strolling through a wash, nibbling on greenery. "Now there's something you won't see again if this proposal goes through," he said.
Too close for comfort
Valley resident Roger Juszczak spent 10 years hunting for the perfect getaway before he settled on a fix-up cabin in Thompson Draw two years ago.
He describes himself as one of the kids in the area. "Most of my neighbors have been there for generations," he said.
Juszczak views the plan for SettleInn at Pine Meadows from an unusual vantage point: He's in the real estate development business himself, working with Westcor Partners, a commercial real estate firm in Phoenix.
He thinks the two issues that should be stressed in this debate are density and compatibility.
On the former issue, Juszczak cites the Growing Smarter Commission's density figures, which are 5.57 people per acre for Phoenix, 7.81 people per acre for Los Angeles, and 1.19 people per acre for Thompson Draw.
"If Pine Meadows is created as planned," Juszczak said, "with 536 cabins on 138 acres, there will be a density of 8.06 people per acre -- higher than Los Angeles."
The other subdivisions in the area have a much lower housing density, he said. Thompson Draw 1 has 38 cabins on 80 acres, Thompson Draw 2 has 47 cabins on 83 acres and Bear Flats has 47 cabins on 95 acres.
In his presentation at last week's planning and zoning hearing, Juszczak said, "I am not against development, as it is my profession ... Rezoning this property to a land-use designation that is compatible with the surrounding area does not just represent the correct legal choice and the correct policy choice -- it is the correct ethical and moral choice."