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The Last Man in Cactus

A rusty sign reading "Cactus Garage" marks the only remnant of what was once Cactus, Arizona. Make that one of two remnants. Eighty-year-old desert rat Larry Jany is the oldest resident of Cactus, which sprang up as a stagecoach stop between Cave Creek and Phoenix. When Jany moved here 50...
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A rusty sign reading "Cactus Garage" marks the only remnant of what was once Cactus, Arizona.

Make that one of two remnants.

Eighty-year-old desert rat Larry Jany is the oldest resident of Cactus, which sprang up as a stagecoach stop between Cave Creek and Phoenix. When Jany moved here 50 years ago, there wasn't much more than a post office, a bar and an old theater house. He built his home and the attached auto-repair shop on 1.5 acres of land off Cave Creek Road, next to the mountains.

Today, those hills are known as the Phoenix Mountains Preserve. Jany also predates the Jack in the Box, Subway, 7-Eleven, Jiffy Lube, Home Depot, Exxon and Taco Bell on the corner.

Clad in a navy blue jumpsuit and a "ride free" Harley-Davidson cap, Jany stands in his dusty front yard beside a hoisted car. He points to a spot where people with tuberculosis from all over the world used to come to die. He smears a blackened mechanic's hand, sans index finger, across the horizon as he recalls the nothingness.

Today he wants nothing more than to get rid of his lot at 1602 East Desert Cove.

"When I bought it, this was just right. Just me and three other people here. Course, they're all dead now," he says.

So is his view. He has a low-rent motel to the front of his lot, along with an auto body shop and air-conditioner store. A communications tower imposes itself next to his house, and Jany worries that the microwaves might harm his health. A city flood-control dam borders the back of his property, while a city Parks and Recreation maintenance yard, complete with parked vehicles and storage sheds, is on the lot adjacent to Jany's. The place just isn't what it used to be, and Jany is ready to sell it and retire.

A pool builder offered to buy the property and put in a contractor's yard. But that buyer got scared off.

Jany didn't realize that when the city annexed his property in the '70s, it was zoned residential. When the buyer inquired about rezoning, city Planning Department officials said they most likely would not support commercial zoning so close to the preserve.

The city's environmental concerns don't seem to extend to the city's own Parks and Recreation maintenance yard, which bears the address of 1602 East Sahuaro. This property is also zoned for residences only.

So while the city says Jany's lot can't be commercial, it's using an adjacent tract for a nonconforming commercial purpose. Municipal government is basically exempt from zoning laws, and Larry Jany has to find a buyer who wants to build homes next to a maintenance yard and tucked behind a faded motel.

Residential real estate agent Bill Gloyer says there is "no chance in the world" that Jany's lot could be developed as a residential property. He says the adjacent properties are not suitable, and Jany's lot could best be used commercially.

David Richert, the city's director of planning, says rezoning Jany's parcel to commercial is not in the interests of the mountain preserve.

"The mountain preserve would be negatively impacted by ugly, open land use," Richert says. "The mountain preserve deserves better than this."

Susanne Rothwell, president of the Phoenix Mountains Preservation Council, agrees that the preserve deserves development that is sympathetic to the mountains. For instance, the McDonald's that went in at Seventh Street and Thunderbird would be an example of unsympathetic development, she says. Rothwell says the problem is that the city still lacks guidelines for development around the preserves. There are also questions about where the actual mountain preserve boundaries lie.

Jany walks around the back of his lot, and mutters about the "damn dam" the city built in the '70s on preserve land behind the house. He says his children used to play there. Jany raised his daughter and three sons on this property, none of whom wish to inherit a house that still has an abandoned mine shaft for a sewer. He retired from Luke Air Force Base in 1976, where he worked as part of the Civil Air Patrol. Now he is ready to retire the garage and move.

"I'm too old for this," Jany explains.

Jany has two options. He could choose to fight city staff, hoping that the Planning and Zoning Commission and the city council will see his point and rezone his land for a commercial use. It's about a four-month process that would cost him more than $2,500. It's money Jany says he just doesn't have.

Planning Department officials say that even if he goes through with the process, in all likelihood they will not recommend rezoning of Jany's land.

In light of this, his commercial buyer has decided to take her business elsewhere. Jany could sell to a residential buyer, if he can find someone who wants to build a home on a lot with a lovely view of a municipal maintenance yard and a flood-control dam.

Jany worries about fighting the city, his angst perhaps rooted in a time when people didn't make waves. In the meantime, he is stuck with a piece of land he doesn't want and can't sell.

"I don't know what the heck I'm gonna do," Jany says. "If you can't sell it, what can you do?"

Contact Amanda Scioscia at her online address: [email protected]

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