Under Fire

The owner says he's lived in the desert all his life.

He's a seventh-generation Arizonan whose grandfather herded sheep across the Valley. His longtime residence is a few blocks from the Phoenix Mountains Preserve.

For his retirement, the man decided to build a new home. He purchased two adjacent 1.5-acre parcels on North Arroya Grande Drive, a private road running up against the north side of Squaw Peak.

The new home will provide a more intimate desert experience than his current residence. It will be a home of his own design. And, unlike his current house, it will be entirely wheelchair accessible -- a necessary design element that includes wider doorways, a roll-up shower and a roll-under sink.

The home, he says, "will be there for us, and it will be there for our children when we pass on."

The owner closed escrow about the same time the first serial arson attack occurred on North Arroya Grande Drive.

He initially assumed the fire was some sort of construction accident.

"We didn't know anything about threats or anybody being upset about building in that area," he says. "Especially because all those homes have been there for years."

Yet the arsons continued, and their political nature became readily apparent last fall. Though the fires worried the owner, he recently began preparing the Arroya Grande property for construction.

Then, on March 17, his neighbors found the notes.

The notes are headlined "Thou Shall Not Desecrate God's Creation" and signed by the Coalition to Save the Preserves. They warn the owner not to attempt construction on his property.

"That's a threat, and I'm not going to back down when somebody issues a threat to me," he says. "That's my property, and I can build whatever goddamn thing I want on it."

The owner agreed to speak to New Times on the condition that he not be identified. Investigators have told him that public access to his parcel records has been blocked to help protect his anonymity.

Though investigators have not publicly confirmed whether the notes are from the same group that has claimed responsibility for 11 arsons in the Phoenix area, the property owner was told that police believe they are genuine.

He says the notes gave him "kind of a sinking feeling."

"You hate for anybody to have any sort of ill feelings toward you," he says, "especially in a case like this where the person has followed through on his threats."

In response to the notes, the owner put up a sign at his property. The sign announces that he will only build on one of his two plots of land, that the second plot will be preserved. The sign concludes by saying he respects the environment and he expects others to respect his rights in return.

"We have people going out to dig up the Palo Verdes and the cacti to be put in a nursery, so we can put them back when we're done," he says.

It's a conservationist step the owner says he would have taken regardless of the arsons.

"I'm not a rampaging environmentalist, but we're definitely concerned about the environment," he says. "I've seen the Valley completely paved over. Never did you think that those lands weren't private, but you did get used to seeing them open. It's really too bad that conservation measures weren't thought of 50 years ago. But that's the town we live in, and that's what you put up with."

Construction on the house will take 12 to 18 months. The owner won't detail his security precautions, but says that about 10 percent of the construction cost will be spent on security.

The added cost, he says, is just one of the frustrating aspects of this issue. Here he is, worrying and spending thousands, feeling as if he has to justify how he will build on his rightfully purchased land. And, all the while, some people think he's the bad guy.

"The people that own these pieces of property, there's the impression that we're just arrogant land stealers," his wife says, "and that's not the case."

The owner notes that the Preserve consists of land swapped with the city of Phoenix by the same families who have watched their property values plummet due to the arsons.

"They're building their homes to raise their children in," he says, "and this guy is going out and torching them, saying, 'It's no big deal, it's just a piece of construction.' Well, that's not it. You don't know the suffering people are going through. I've met with every single family that's been burned, and their lives are completely turned upside down by this."

When asked what he would say to the group responsible for the fires, the owner talks with his wife for a moment. They select a comment unrelated to their own worries.

"Don't be using the Bible to quote stuff when you're out there committing crimes against people and their property."

For complete New Times coverage of the Preserves Arsonist, click over to our Arsonist Archives.

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd