When Apache Junction Mayor Doug Coleman and City Manager George Hoffman look out over the sparsely vegetated alluvial plains and washes southeast of Baseline and Meridian roads, they see a marvel of modern urban design waiting to happen.
And no one has been waiting more anxiously than Apache Junction’s leaders to start building on the roughly 12 square miles of state trust land known as Lost Dutchman Heights, a portion of which Hoffman said could be auctioned off to a developer as early as October.
The first 3-square-mile parcel to be sold represents the start of the initial phase of a proposed new mega master-planned community east of Mesa, the northwest tip of a 275-square-mile swath of barren desert known as Superstition Vistas.
Hoffman is hoping a good portion of that land will end up within his city, just as Lost Dutchman Heights has done. Not only because its homes and businesses would bring added revenue, but because he sees it as the key to transforming Apache Junction’s image from that of a horse-and-buggy town to a community that seamlessly blends traditions and innovations.
“We want to preserve the things that are important to us, and while preserving those things move forward and be progressive,” Hoffman said.
He envisions an Apache Junction that offers a rural lifestyle to those who desire it, with pockets of high-density “village nodes” surrounded by employment centers, shopping, parks, trails and other amenities.
City officials have been touring master-planned communities such as Verrado, DC Ranch and Agritopia to see how they are being built and to identify which features Apache Junction builders should strive to emulate.
“We looked at sort of regional ‘best practices,’ ” Hoffman said.
Improving on the Valley’s premier housing communities is an ambitious goal for a city that has changed little in 25 years, the lone holdout amid the East Valley’s rapid shift from open land to suburban superstructure.
A lack of strict design standards and a permissive attitude toward trailer parks and other forms of low-income housing have kept away some of the area’s busiest developers. Until completion of a new City Hall in March 2005, city leaders were embarrassed to host interested builders because their municipal offices were located inside modified mobile homes.
Now, Hoffman and Coleman are excited about selling their vision of a new Apache Junction to the development community.
“We can build a better mousetrap,” Coleman said.
CONVINCING DEVELOPERS IS JUST ONE HURDLE
But convincing developers that they should build in Apache Junction is just one of many hurdles that lie ahead.
Another challenge will be to convince Apache Junction residents that the push southward and toward a new urban lifestyle won’t destroy the rural life that initially attracted them.
“In certain areas of the community, there’s a resistance to change,” Hoffman said.
City officials met that resistance head on in May 2004 when they proposed hiring a marketing consultant to give the city’s image a makeover that could have included a new name such as “Apache Foothills” or “Superstition City.”
The City Council voted against the proposal after it was criticized by longtime residents who said they prefer Apache Junction’s name and image to remain just the way they are. Two-thirds of residents responding to a Tribune phone survey said they opposed a name change.
But Hoffman said highdensity urban development in L ost Dutchman Heights actually would help preserve the rural flavor of the rest of the city. Developers would focus their attention on the undeveloped area south of U.S. 60 rather than on development of rural areas to the north, he said.
“Residents north of the freeway know their area won’t change because of what happens south of the freeway,” Hoffman said.
Still, Coleman acknowledged that there is a danger of creating two distinct communities that share little in common other than the city’s name. He and Hoffman are hoping the development of a pedestrian-friendly town center just north of Lost Dutchman Heights would tie the two communities together.
City planners are working on a design for the town center, which would be located at the original “Junction” of Apache Trail/Old West Highway and state Route 88. Conceptual drawings should be completed within the next 30 to 45 days, Hoffman said.
It would have a unique look and feel but would incorporate elements of other popular downtown areas such as Mill Avenue in Tempe, he said.
One cultural element city planners may capitalize on is the abundance of Western artists and crafts people drawn to the area’s natural beauty, Hoffman said.
The town center could become a place to showcase local artwork, both on the streets and in galleries and shops, he said, but it would have a more contemporary look than Old Town Scottsdale.
The goal is to create an environment that will leave a lasting, positive impression on visitors and residents, Hoffman said.
“Mill Avenue is very compact, but it has a memorable feel,” he said.
RETENTION WALL DISPUTE COULD SNAG PLANNING
As for Lost Dutchman Heights, planning and design efforts will remain purely academic unless the Arizona Land Department can resolve a dispute over the massive flood retention wall that cuts through the area.
The northernmost of three earthen dams built decades ago to protect sections of the East Valley from catastrophic flooding, the retention wall sits atop a 40-year-old easement granted to Maricopa County’s flood control district that has become the object of an ongoing legal battle.
The 18,500-acre flood control easement completely overlaps Lost Dutchman Heights, making it impossible to develop the land, which is in Pinal County, unless Maricopa County agrees to scale back the boundaries. Hoffman and Coleman say the easement stretches beyond what is needed to protect the area adequately.
In 2000, Maricopa County blocked an attempt by Scottsdale developer George Johnson to buy part of what is now Lost Dutchman Heights because the sale would have resulted in development on the easement. But the Land Department, which manages the land trust, held that the easement was not valid because it was never paid for as required by the state constitution.
However, 862 other easements granted since the 1920s to state agencies, counties and cities throughout Arizona also were not paid for. The Land Department ultimately reversed its earlier stance that Maricopa County should pay, but not until after a lawsuit was filed against the state on behalf of two school districts that contend all government agencies using state trust land should be forced to pay up.
Most of the proceeds from trust land are allocated to schools and universities, so the lawsuit contends Arizona’s educational institutions have been deprived of billions of dollars from the unpaid easements.
Still, Hoffman said Land Department officials have assured him they are in the process of resolving the dispute, and that the land will be auctioned as planned.
Even if the land is sold in October, the development of Lost Dutchman Heights is still at least two years away, city officials said, but they hope to work closely with interested developers and the Land Department to ensure the final product will be worth the wait.
“To us, it’s very important,” Coleman said.