By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Burns bought 28,000 acres through one of his subsidiaries at a cost of $2,400 to $2,700 an acre. Bell pocketed more than $70 million on land appraised at $29 million.
And Robert Burns now held the biggest piece of land he'd ever owned.
Bell sold another 20,000 acres to other investors, with the largest chunk going to Al Gardner. Gardner later sold a large chunk to developer Bill Bliss, the fiery Chicago Irishman who heads Scottsdale Development Inc. Burns then brought Bliss and others into his dream city, and the original 48,000 acres of Sun Valley, Arizona, was in place.
Within three years, though, the plan would be in disarray. And Burns, Bliss and Ronson, all high-dollar, savvy, obstinate brawlers, would be bitter enemies locked in a ferocious legal battle for survival.
In 1986, Buckeye was an ugly little desert town only Buckeye patriots could love. Its streets and downtown were buckling, its tax base was eroding, it was surrounded by farmers who were lucky if they were just getting by.
Annette Napolitano, who with her husband farms land near Buckeye, told her children they couldn't return to the homestead after college. There was no living to be made off the land.
"It breaks your heart," she says. "But this is reality."
Into this reality walked Robert Burns and several of his British investors. They described the kingdom they would build and they invited Buckeye to be part of the dream. Annex us, they said. Then pass our master plan.
Napolitano (no relation to state Attorney General Janet Napolitano) was a member of the city council at the time. She didn't like the smell of the deal. It felt like a speculative hustle. She was the only one on the council who felt this way.
"The whole thing didn't look like anything we could pay for," she says. "It was this giant fantasy. But people were just dazzled by it all. It was very overwhelming."
At the same time, the town seemed overcome with Anglophilia. Buckeye adopted a British sister city. Town dignitaries made trips to England and vice versa.
Napolitano says she was run off the board for her anti-development stance. But in her own feat of political maneuvering, she got herself immediately onto the planning and zoning board, the stopgap for plans before they reach the town council.
She believed Sun Valley was bad development that Buckeye was ill-prepared to absorb. Over the next decade, she and other residents worked to ensure that the town had the mechanisms and know-how in place to accept only good development that Buckeye could absorb.
In the late '80s, Buckeye annexed the area that would become Sun Valley and, by doing so, became a town, mostly empty, in the shape of a gigantic finger. Subsequent annexations have made Buckeye a city spanning 500 square miles, nearly the same size as Phoenix. At build-out, it will be a city of one million people.
Back then, though, build-out seemed a long way off, Napolitano says. Then the market crashed and build-out seemed like a silly dream.
The city hired a town planner in the early 1990s. Napolitano and others worked to educate themselves on development. With the Arizona Department of Commerce, they penned the North Buckeye Master Plan.
"We got the pieces in place to protect the town," she says. "Everybody knows we're going to ask the tough questions about schools, water, roads, everything. The safeguards are in place."
Buckeye's big plans lay dormant through the early 1990s. Then, in 1996, a holding company called Phoenix Holdings represented by a guy named Brent Hickey showed up back on the town's doorstep. Phoenix Holdings wanted to submit its area plan for a new, smaller Sun Valley.
It was a good plan, Napolitano says. And by the evening of the final vote, the board agreed it was a good plan.
That night, she says, the chambers were packed.
"So everybody is packed in there and then, out of nowhere, in walks Barry Goldwater," she says. "It was so odd. It was like you had this wax figure in the room.
"So Mr. Goldwater gets up and makes his God and Country speech. And in my head I'm thinking, 'What connection could this possibly have with the issue?' They were trying to impress us, I guess. But it had the effect of making you feel like somebody was trying to slip something past you."
By the early 1990s, the deals were drying up around the offices of Burns International. And, according to two ex-employees, it seemed like Robert Burns was the only guy who didn't realize it.
"He never seemed down," says one employee. "He had this totally undefeatable spirit. His take on it was simple: He hadn't done anything wrong. And he wasn't going to allow people to kick him around. And he was going to keep doing business."
He was still doing business in his head 24 hours a day, still carrying his tape recorder everywhere, still coming into work in the morning after sleepless nights with tapes that his secretaries were to transcribe. The staff called these transcriptions "Robograms." And when you got one, you acted on it because Robert Burns, no matter how much was flying through his head, never seemed to forget one tiny detail.