By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
There have been at least four planning efforts financed--in whole or in part--by the state since the mid-'80s to figure out what to do with its $80 million real estate diamond in the rough. The planning efforts have cost more than $600,000 and none has seen the light of day. Most recently, a two-year effort that cost more than $250,000 broke up on the rocks and shoals of Lake Havasu City government examination.
The common denominator in all the failed plans: Each called for some residential development. Houses on The Island are bitterly opposed by a vocal group of Lake Havasu City old-timers, including most of the real estate community.
Gary Baumkirchner, a red-haired fireplug of a man, has been a driving force behind this opposition. Baumkirchner founded and runs the largest real estate firm in the area. His company is behind one out of every four houses sold in Lake Havasu City, where every third person seems to be selling land or building houses, or both.
So why would a town's biggest realtor fight having more houses to sell? It seems odd, especially when those houses would be in a very special place--Arizona's only island. Baumkirchner himself has called the idea "a real estate company's delight."
Baumkirchner and his allies claim they're acting to preserve the promises they gave Lake Havasu City's buyers 20 years ago, and to protect the area's beaches and coves for the people who live there now.
"I don't know what gives MCO the right to come back here and change their minds after 20 years," the fiery realtor says. "I'd like to see us explore other directions. I've never had anybody come up to me and say they want residential on The Island. I would personally like to see resorts instead."
Resorts would make sense, except for one problem: Getting to Lake Havasu is difficult. Whether you drive north from Yuma, west from Phoenix or east from California, the roads are two-lane and narrow. There's an airport, with two flights out when the weather permits, but it can't accommodate jetliners. As a result, the hotels are seldom full, except during spring break.
Although MCO and the state consider residential housing imperative to developing The Island, Baumkirchner is steadfast in his opposition.
"They're ripping the heart out of our city to repay debts for Phoenix and Tucson," he says. "Why are we constantly having this [residential housing] shoved down our throats? The only people who want this are State Land and MCO. Our future is at stake here. You'd think the State of Arizona would want to preserve recreational land. The demand for it goes up every day."
Baumkirchner and his allies are formidable. The last time MCO tried to push development plans through the city, Island defenders raised opposing petitions signed by more than 6,000 in a matter of weeks. In a town where 4,000 votes wins a city council seat, politicians took notice. Many Lake Havasu City residents are willing to see more than a rusting sewage treatment plant and an old airport on The Island. They talk of beaches, parks, tennis courts, hiking trails, even golf courses. These things cost money.
Public funds could be used to pay for such amenities, if they were available. They're not. The little city has its hands full financing basic infrastructure.
State land commissioner C. Jean Hassell thinks he has the answer, if he could only get Lake Havasu City's politicians and zealots to agree.
@body:Hassell is a friendly bear of a man, as tall as Baumkirchner is short. He smiles a lot and speaks with a disarming drawl. But The Island has taxed his patience.
"There's just no place like it," Hassell says, referring not to The Island's terrain but to Lake Havasu City's political landscape.
State Land's solution to local needs and state demands for revenue is the proverbial "public-private partnership"--developers who buy state land on the Island would pay fees to finance the parks, beaches and other public facilities people in Lake Havasu City want.
The hitch: According to Hassell and his advisers, the only economically feasible plan calls for residential development, and that raises the hackles of locals and starts the debate all over again.
Hassell's hopes are simple. "I would at least like some plan that would make sense, that we could agree to and get that behind us. I look at that Island and all I see is just a fantastic opportunity for Lake Havasu City," he says.
After two years of work with planning consultants and a citizens' committee, a plan that everyone could live with seemingly took shape last year. Sure, there were houses, but they were surrounded by a ring of public beaches and parks that circled The Island. Even Baumkirchner, who sat on the committee, seemed to grudgingly accept the plan.
But the plan contained a time bomb. All the drawings showed a golf course snaking from what's now the deserted airport. Everybody seemed to like the golf course, and it became the centerpiece of the whole concept. Everybody but MCO, that is. Company executives said the golf course was unworkable because it would meander through land owned or leased by at least four different entities. As a replacement, they called for a series of parks.