Continental Divide

A development proposed for a north Valley slope has residents accusing the county of "collusion"

In March, Janet Mohr decided to landscape her property.

What she did won't make the cover of Better Homes and Gardens, but she's a real estate agent, not a landscaper. At the base of Continental Mountain, Mohr rolled pumpkin-size boulders onto an unpaved road, technically called Fleming Springs Road, that crosses her land.

Mohr still hopes to build a dream home on her land. But until last October, she figured the mountain would be her closest neighbor. Now she fears her future home site, located in Maricopa County just north of the municipal boundaries of Cave Creek and Carefree, will be the welcome mat of an unwanted mountainside development.

Opponents of Gold Mountain Estates think Smith's road destroys the natural beauty of Continental Mountain.
Opponents of Gold Mountain Estates think Smith's road destroys the natural beauty of Continental Mountain.
Opponents of Gold Mountain Estates think Smith's road destroys the natural beauty of Continental Mountain.
Paolo Vescia
Opponents of Gold Mountain Estates think Smith's road destroys the natural beauty of Continental Mountain.

Mohr bought her 10 acres for about $110,000 on December 31, 1997. At that time, she says, the dirt road running through the property was little more than a rutted jeep track used by tour companies to cart sightseers up to the abandoned Gift Lode gold mine.

Other than the city-slicker excursions, there hadn't been much traffic on the primitive path, says Mohr.

Then, last October, Phoenix developer Wayne Smith began the first phase of what he says will be an upscale 380-acre subdivision called Gold Mountain Estates. Eventually, Smith says, his company, Canyon State Equipment, will create the "premier development" in the Carefree area.

"He said that he wanted permission to cross over my property to take a look at his," says Mohr of her first meeting with Smith in October 1998. "I knew that he was going to be bringing equipment trucks onto his property. I specifically told him not to touch any of the vegetation on my property."

Mohr gave Smith permission to cross her land. The next day, she says she visited her property and was furious to find the jeep track had been widened and graded into what she considers an unsightly thoroughfare.

In the ensuing months, the developer extended the road from Mohr's property up the mountain with an excavator and a hammer hoe.

And now, when residents and politicians in the neighboring towns of Carefree, Cave Creek and Scottsdale step out for a breath of fresh scenery, they don't like what they see.

Road graders have knocked saguaros down the slopes of Continental Mountain. Some cacti are buried up to their armpits in rubble. A few others lie mangled and rotting on the road. Roots from roadside vegetation dangle uselessly where there used to be earth.

Although residents say the road appears to violate county hillside ordinances, which can apply to private property, county officials allowed Smith to grade it anyway. County officials say the road is a "driveway" exempt from the ordinance.

And there are other permitting irregularities.

Even though the "driveway" winds through private property, the county requires flood-control and dust permits before grading can begin. But when county officials discovered that Smith had begun grading prior to getting such permits, they failed to take any meaningful action against the developer.

Maricopa County's failure to prevent the scarring of Continental Mountain has residents frustrated. Some accuse county officials of "colluding" with Smith and bending their own rules so Smith can develop Continental Mountain.

If the county can't save the mountain, both Cave Creek and Carefree officials are exploring the possibilities of annexing the area to prevent further damage.

Dropping the boulders on the road was Mohr's way of telling Smith that his permission to cross her land had been rescinded. Mohr figured her land was private. Smith had no right to gouge a road through it, she says.

Smith wasn't impressed. His lawyer, Noel Hebetz, sent Mohr a letter on March 19, 1999, threatening a lawsuit. The letter claims Smith has a legal right to use her private property for access so Smith's property won't be landlocked. The dispute may end up in court.

This Battle of the Boulders is a skirmish in a larger war. Continental Mountain is a symbol of the simmering dispute between developers and preservationists over growth in Arizona.

Caught in the brawl, Arizona's counties find themselves taking the heat for weak zoning regulations that encourage haphazard growth.

The Sierra Club and the State of Arizona's growth-control reform group, the Growing Smarter Commission, have a running duel going.

Both groups acknowledge that counties have far less power to regulate growth than municipalities, but have different solutions.

The Sierra Club has an alternative plan, its Citizen's Growth Management Initiative, which is expected to go before voters in November 2000. The CGMI seeks to give counties more clout.

The Growing Smarter Commission, meanwhile, strives for a "balance" between demands of developers and realtors opposed to increased regulation by counties, and residents wanting more county regulation, according to Jack Pfister, chairman of the commission.

But all of this comes too late for Continental Mountain, a nascent martyr for the anti-growth cause.

Damage to the mountain is significant, and it could get much worse.

Wayne Smith's 380 acres sit in what the Arizona Department of Water Resources calls an "Active Management Area." All subdivision developers in such areas must prove that they have a 100-year supply of water to serve the proposed community.

Smith has yet to apply for his certificate of assured water supply. If he fails to show he has an adequate water supply, the subdivision cannot be approved by the Arizona Department of Real Estate. And if the state rejects his application, so will the county.

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