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Go Sell It On The Mountain

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I am sorry to admit that I once reported that bull drool in another article without challenging it. Trespass through the subdivisions crawling up the sides of, say, Camelback Mountain, and study the kinds of houses people have built. How much communing with the mountain's spirit seems to be going on? "It's pure ego," architect Will Bruder says. We're touring the heights of the Phoenix Mountains and Mummy Mountain in Paradise Valley, Bruder pointing out infrequent samples of sensitive houses and the increasing ostentation and wretched excess. Bruder says he's starting to see the Beverly Hills phenomenon in the Valley's northeastern mountains, where people are buying older, smaller houses, knocking them down, and building monsters in their places. Not many of the newest homes are quiet and deferential.

"Look at that house," Bruder says, pointing to a white palace. "It meets all the Paradise Valley hillside ordinance requirements, except for the color. The owner insists on his right to paint it white, and it's in court right now." We enter another development, where Bruder himself designed a relatively modest, unobtrusive mountainside house a few years ago.

"Look at it now," he says. "It looks like the gatehouse for all these mothers behind it. There's a 13,000-square-foot job that's used as a weekend home for a couple from the Midwest! When you do that, you're essentially putting a hotel on the mountainside."

PEOPLE HAVEN'T been building on these desert mountain slopes for long; there are very few houses that date back even to 1950. It wasn't that Pioneer Man had any more delicacy in his attitude toward the land, but an accident of geography. Phoenix started out as a farm town, and the farmland that could easily be irrigated was in the flats near the Salt River. The city grew from the river outward, and it took a few generations to ooze into the mountains.

What we've managed to do to the mountains in forty years is amazing. Until 1976, when Scottsdale and Pima County passed the first hillside ordinances in the state, there was virtually no regulation anywhere in Arizona. Anyone who could afford a mountainside lot could do anything he wanted.

The Red Rocks of Sedona have been the most tragic victims. Houses are strewn over the hills, ridges, buttes and escarpments of this spectacular landscape like litter in a stadium. Building pads are gouged from the hills, and the rubble dumped unceremoniously downslope.

As far as any sort of planning was concerned, Sedona has been a banana republic. The town didn't even incorporate until 1988, and until then, building essentially was regulated by pressure groups lurching from one county courthouse to another--Sedona straddles Yavapai and Coconino Counties. The town has arguably the most spectacular natural setting of any in North America, but what's been built there is little but a monument to a concept long cherished in the West: A person's property is his to do with as he damn pleases, and the notion of pro bono publico can burn in hell.

It seems very late, but Sedona is finally working on a community plan to protect its spectacular rocks. The goal is not a tight web of restrictions, says architect John Sather, but "to get people to realize that they're the caretakers of one of the most beautiful places on earth."

The experience of more sophisticated municipalities around the state hasn't been much better. In Pima County, the "peaks and ridges" section of the slope ordinance specifically exempted the Catalinas--which is where all the most spectacular and sensitive land and all the money was. Today the southern and western slopes emulate the clutter on Camelback.

In Paradise Valley, drive around to the east side of Mummy Mountain and see a new Burns International subdivision named "La Place du Sommet." There are no houses yet, only a medieval-looking gatehouse and a road that slashes 180 degrees around the side of the canyon, looking for all the world like a fledgling strip mine.

"They came to us [in 1984] with a development plan for one house per acre," says former mayor Joan Lincoln. "I began to have serious doubts about how much scarring it was going to cause. We turned it down, and they filed a $43 million lawsuit." A negotiated settlement allowed the projected one house per acre, and the access road was cut into the canyon. Paradise Valley went to work and toughened its ordinance, but the damage had already been done.

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Lawrence W. Cheek