With the promise of a wide expanse of state land to be auctioned within the next year, Apache Junction officials are hopeful to plug into the East Valley’s booming real estate scene.
For now, however, Apache Junction lags behind other East Valley communities in appreciation rates, but leads the way in Pinal County.
Initial data for Apache Junction, which includes the Gold Canyon area, shows that the median price of an existing home increased by about 3.5 percent, from $185,000 in April to $191,750 in May of this year, according to the Arizona Real Estate Center at Arizona State University Polytechnic, formerly ASU East.
"The median home price in Pinal County as a whole is $183,900, so Apache Junction is well above that," said Jay Butler, an ASU professor and the center’s director.
In comparison, however, home prices increased by 5.3 percent in Gilbert over the same period and by 49.8 percent from May 2004 to May 2005, according to the center.
In contrast, the median price of an existing home in Apache Junction increased by 27.8 percent to hit $191,750 in May 2005, compared with May 2004.
The center compiles monthly and quarterly data on real estate prices across the Valley. Focusing mainly on Maricopa County communities, the center has just begun compiling data for the Apache Junction-Gold Canyon area, Butler said.
But there are exceptions to these averages, such as the $729,000 listing price for a 2,900-square-foot, 5-bedroom house in the Superstition Highlands development off Mountain View Road in Apache Junction.
Coldwell Banker real estate agent Barbara Schultz showed the property to her client, Brenda Herrera, on a recent outing. Herrera, her husband and three children have lived in the region since the late ’90s and want to stay.
"My daughter just started high school and I don’t really want to change schools on her," Herrera said.
Properties like Schultz’s listing are popular and demand high prices, partly due to the views of the Superstition Mountains, Schultz said.
"Because of our zoning, our property near the base of the mountain are one-acre minimum lots, which is what people really like," Schultz said. "Depending on how close to the mountain, just a lot can go from a low of $150,000 up to $300,000."
Schultz said that clients like Herrera appreciate what Apache Junction has to offer, including its separation from the central Valley.
People buying in Apache Junction are looking for "a little smaller, more rural atmosphere, a little smaller town. We have all the amenities but not the congestion in the cities like Mesa or Tempe or Chandler," Schultz said.
And that’s translated into higher overall prices for properties in the area across the board, Schultz said.
"What we’re seeing that used to sell for $110,000 to $120,000 is now selling for $165,000 to $185,000 or $190,000," Schultz said.
Development and, in turn, real estate prices in Apache Junction have lagged behind other East Valley communities because of a lack of open land, said R.L. Brown, a consultant and editor of The Phoenix Housing Market Letter.
"Apache Junction didn’t have the kind of activity that other cities with large amounts of land readily available for development have had," Brown said. "A lot of the activity that might have gone to Apache Junction in fact went south along the Hunt Highway."
There, with expanses of acreage available, there’s "tremendous velocity of land and housing sales," Brown said.
But that will most certainly change, with the auction of a vast expanse of land, more than 7,000 acres, just south of Apache Junction.
Called the Lost Dutchman Heights area, the State Land Department plans to auction off about 530 acres of that within the next year, said Richard Hubbard, spokesman.
"It’s our goal to get that land planned and in a position to be auctioned," Hubbard said. "What we are looking to do is hopefully do it (auction) in the middle of calendar year 2006, but there is a lot of work to be done."
As part of an ongoing plan, interested bidders would lay out a development plan for that acreage and, if successful at auction, would then be responsible for laying out the design for the remaining 6,500 acres.
Likely to be developed as residential property, the prospect of the auction has Apache Junction officials excited about its possibilities.
"It’s gong to be a whole new concept, with innovative design plans and trying to be more organic in form, following the features of the land," said Rudy Esquivias, Apache Junction’s senior planner and zoning administrator. "This is our future right there."
But Apache Junction and the State Land Department aren’t the only ones interested in getting the land into private hands.
Despite some ongoing legal issues with water drainage and the existence of earthen dams and the Central Arizona Project Canal on the property, developers, too, are eyeing the parcel.
Subject to a lawsuit dating back to the late 1960s, the water concerns center on the authority of the land department to give easements to other governmental bodies without receiving payment. But Hubbard said those will likely be resolved soon.
Regardless, Robson Communities’ Steve Soriano said the property has the full attention of the region’s developers.
"Developers have been trying to buy that land from the State Land Department for over a decade now," said Soriano, Robson’s chief financial officer and an executive vice president.
"The land does have a lot of complications on it — with rights of ways and easements. But we are happy with the inventory (the open acreage). . . . Some inventory, even complicated, is better than no inventory at all," Soriano said.
Soriano said his company is among those interested in having a presence on the property. It’s become even more important as the availability of open land continues to decline in the Valley.
"If we can’t be the master developer, we want to be one of the builders out there," Soriano said. "The State Land Department is handling this the right way. And Apache Junction has a good reputation. You can’t argue with their (the land department’s) results. They’re getting record (auction) prices," he said.