Nobody knows, exactly, how many shovelfuls of dirt there are in 275 square miles.
But the first few of them have now been dug in the vast tract of state trust land known as Superstition Vistas.
And by 2023, the first of what could someday be a million residents will be moving into their new homes.
The chief partners in this first phase of a project expected to span generations are Apache Junction, Brookfield Residential Properties Inc., and D.R. Horton, a Texas-based homebuilding firm.
With giant earth-moving machines as a backdrop, 17 men and women dug their shovels into a pre-softened pile of dirt in a ceremonial groundbreaking on Dec. 7. After that, the earth-movers got busy with on-site work for an expected 10,500 homes to be built over the next 10 years on about 4.3 square miles.
“It’s more than historic,” Apache Junction City Manager Bryant Powell said. “It will change the face of the city and the region.” Powell said the project is the biggest thing Apache Junction has ever undertaken.
“Probably the biggest story we have here is that we just launched Superstition Vistas,” said John Bradley, president of Brookfield’s Arizona division. “It’s a long time coming.”
Brookfield is known for several projects in the Valley, including the Eastmark development on former General Motors property in Mesa.
Mike Hutchinson, a former Mesa city manager who has overseen planning for the Vistas on behalf of the East Valley Partnership, called the Horton project “a great first step,” and that good planning probably will ensure the success of this early phase.
“We think this first development is great,” Hutchinson said. “The location is good. It’s really exceptional for Apache Junction.”
As big as this particular phase is, it is but a tiny sliver of an area that has been the focus of intense interest for at least two decades.
The concept of Superstition Vistas as a discrete planning area hadn’t popped into anyone’s head until Sept. 18, 2003.
Roc Arnett, who at that time was president of the East Valley Partnership, was driving home that day from a meeting that had been called to discuss potential development in Pinal County. The term “Superstition Vistas” occurred to him as he came over a rise in the road and saw the grand sweep of the landscape now bearing that name.
Arnett’s brainstorm led to a 2006 report by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University. That document, entitled, “The Treasure of the Superstitions,” offered a visionary analysis of the region’s potential. It is still available online.
The report, written by veteran East Valley land-use attorney Grady Gammage Jr., saw Superstition Vistas as an immense empty canvas. It urged creative approaches to governance and infrastructure development to ensure sustainability and livability.
While many of the report’s suggestions were not adopted, Pinal County did approve development standards for the region in 2011.
Gammage told The Tribune he’s not bothered that his report’s more revolutionary ideas were not fully implemented.
“Visionary approaches are never realized, but it’s a way of incrementally moving the needle,” Gammage said. He said the Horton/Brookfield project looks like a good way to kick off development in the Vistas.
“You have to start somewhere,” Gammage said. “I am excited to see that it’s getting started.”
Back when the report was written, many expected the development of the Vistas to begin in short order. But 2006 was the last year of a real-estate bubble that burst and plunged the world into the Great Recession. The economic calamity set many projects back by at least a decade.
Hutchinson said the time lag allowed various entities to do their own planning work in the Vistas area.
“We started looking at freeway corridors, drainage issues. The utility companies got to identify utility corridors. SRP and some others worked on some of the water-related issues,” he said.
With all that work now in the books, Hutchinson said the 2011 Pinal County development standards probably need to be revisited.
By far the greatest piece of Superstition Vistas is still owned by the state under auspices of the Arizona State Land Department, which is expected to sell the property piecemeal over time. The 275 square miles – enough land to contain Mesa, Tempe, Gilbert and Chandler combined – stretches from Apache Junction to the northern border of Florence.
The first chunk was sold at auction on Nov. 4, 2020.
D.R. Horton was the winning bidder on 2,783 acres bounded by the Elliot Road alignment on the north, the Ray Road alignment on the south, Meridian Drive on the west and the Idaho Road alignment on the east. The land lies immediately south of another tract called Lost Dutchman Heights, a 7,700-acre parcel of former state land now under development by Phoenix-based Hunn Development Co.
Horton’s winning bid came to $245.5 million in an auction that was tailored to ensure only deep-pocketed development firms could participate. Three other companies bid on the land.
Brookfield was not one of the bidders, but it was partnering with Horton on the purchase. Bradley said Brookfield and Horton agreed to split the land, with Horton developing the western half and Brookfield the eastern.
In October, Apache Junction annexed 6,600 acres of Superstition Vistas land, including the parcel bought by Horton. Horton has agreed to rezone and provide infrastructure for the land that lies outside the parcel it bought.
Some criticized the auction procedure at the time, saying the state could have gotten more money by selling the land in smaller parcels.
But Bradley said selling a big chunk for the first development was a key to launching work in the Vistas.
“It couldn’t get off the ground without someone doing the necessary entitlements, which isn’t that difficult, and infrastructure, which is that difficult,” Bradley said. “So this program starts that and creates oversized infrastructure that will allow the state to sell land in the future under their more typical format.”
The state prefers to sell parcels of about 100 to 150 acres, Bradley said, “and they couldn’t do that at Superstition Vistas because you can’t do that unless you have infrastructure.”
The Dec. 7 groundbreaking kicked off work on the 2,783 acres bought by Horton.
The developers expect the first 1,825 homesites to go up for sale in early 2022. Eventually the tract is expected to accommodate 10,500 homes.
The developers are setting aside 40 acres for commercial uses, 20 acres for an elementary school site, 73 acres for recreational uses and 10 acres for a public facility that may include a library, police and fire services. Among the planned amenities are a 16-acre regional park to be built in partnership with Apache Junction, five other community parks and 30 one-acre neighborhood parks.
Bradley said a signature feature of the development will be streets angled to take advantage of the setting.
“Their focus will really be the Superstition Mountains, so as you drive north on a street you’ll be looking right at the Superstitions,” Bradley said.
According to documents associated with Apache Junction’s Oct. 5 annexation vote, taxpayers will not be on the hook for infrastructure in the new development.
A staff report written for the Planning and Zoning Commission says: “The applicant is responsible for a number of infrastructure improvements including but not limited to the construction of water and sewer lines, booster stations, a water treatment plant and streets.”
Apache Junction’s water utility will serve the new neighborhoods.
“They have developed a very robust water portfolio,” Bradley said. “And they have allocated a portion of that to this development. So, it is assured.”
City documents indicate that Apache Junction’s drinking water comes primarily from groundwater wells and the Colorado River via the Central Arizona Project.
Long-term reliance on Colorado River water may be problematic amid a deep Western drought that has forced water managers to impose the first-ever reductions in deliveries from the beleaguered stream. The initial cutbacks, imposed this year, affected agricultural users in Pinal County.
Bradley said, however, that Apache Junction, although it lies in Pinal County, is not as susceptible to water shortages as other portions of the county because it is part of the Phoenix metro water management area.
Hutchinson believes Apache Junction should have no problem supplying water for this first phase.
“They’re prepared to do that,” he said. “They’ve been planning for it for years.”
But as the Vistas develop further, he said, “There may have to be some additional water supplies acquired over the next 30 or 40 years. It’ll cost more money than people are used to paying today. There’s been some pretty good thinking about what that future is.”
As for the future, Bradley said that was the focus of the Dec. 7 groundbreaking.
“We asked everybody to imagine – put yourself there 20 years from now, 30 years from now, and imagine,” he said. “Everybody will have a little different picture
in their head. But it’s going to be really quite amazing.”