Planning for Growth

Developers Seek Available Land to Foster Communities

By Jay Gonzales

The mountains that shape Tucson’s identity with their stature and beauty are also formidable for their impact on where, and often how, the region grows.

It’s common to see references about “views” in the marketing and advertising for residential communities, particularly the active master-planned developments that skirt the metro area. The mountain views have been a big part of tourism strategies over the years.

And while the region is by no means landlocked by the Catalina, Rincon, Santa Rita and Tucson mountains, the ranges have created definitive corridors where growth is taking place − northwest in and through Marana, southeast toward Vail and Benson, west toward the distant town of Ajo, and south to Sahuarita toward Green Valley and Nogales.

The four most active master-planned communities are predictably in those corridors. Rocking K is 5,000 acres to the southeast. Rancho Sahuarita has been developing on 3,000 acres to the south for more than 20 years. Star Valley to the west has become one of the most active developments. And at Gladden Farms in Marana, all 1,350 acres of land have been gobbled up by builders who are filling it with homes, businesses and amenities.

From a space availability standpoint, Marana and vicinity has wider open spaces and, importantly, a desire to grow. The developable land in the area has mostly been farmland, so it’s flat with few complications like flood plains and drainage issues.

Yet, while growth is welcome, Marana, like most communities with a long history, has a core of longtime residents who care about how it grows, said Jason Angell, development services director for the Town of Marana.

“It was always small-town Marana up until just a couple of years ago, and now the population and development boom has really taken off for us and it’s been consistent,” Angell said.

That consistency is the challenge for the community, Angell said.

“How do we get in front of development and drive toward the vision that we have for Marana rather than reacting to development that is coming in?” Angell said. “Marana is a very business- and development-friendly community so we’re not looking to slow it down. We’re just looking to better position it.”

Though Marana considers its east and west boundaries to be the mountains, planners want to keep the growth within shouting distance of Interstate 10, Angell said. Gladden Farms, its largest development, is just a stone’s throw from the freeway, as is a major industrial development being built by Flint Development.

“We really want to stay probably a couple of miles off of I-10 in both directions,” Angell said. “Along the major thoroughfares like Tangerine Road makes sense because it’s a connection to Oro Valley, and then Avra Valley Road out to Avra Valley is another connection point there. So outside of that, the interstate is really what’s driving us.”

Land is a little tougher equation diagonally across the valley from Marana, to the southeast toward Vail and Benson, says Will White, land broker for Land Advisors Organization which brokers land deals for developers.

The abundance of Arizona state land east and southeast of Tucson means it takes years for a significant piece of land to come available for future development. First, the state must decide to make a parcel available. It has to go to auction. The winning bidder either has to make the investment in infrastructure or find a developer who will so it can proceed with commercial or residential development.

The development at Rocking K notwithstanding, land availability is tight in the area, so much so that White has been sounding an alarm since at least the COVID pandemic that something has to give to make more land available to accommodate the region’s growth. Because of the long-term vision that master-planned communities have to have, the currently available land is within those communities and thus where the growth will be, White said. 

“Land is king. It just is,” he said. “If you have it, you can grow. If you don’t have it, or you have trouble getting access to it, then you have challenges and you have constraints. That’s what the region is seeing now.

“The economy is based on jobs that you’re going to create here. You have industrial, logistics, distribution, manufacturing. Those are doing well. And then housing also drives the economy by producing jobs or trades and building the houses and all the different components. That’s the one that suffers if the homebuilders cannot get enough land opened up.”

David Godlewski, president and CEO of Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association, calls it a “practical reality” that developers must head to the northwest, southwest and the southeast to create new master planned communities.

Rick Kauffman, principal and CEO at Holualoa Companies, which boasts a portfolio of multi-family, office, retail and industrial space, knows which direction his company is headed, not just figuratively, but literally.

“The room for major developments is in the southeast and northwest, it’s sort of following along I-10,” he said. “As a developer, you don’t really have that much choice. That’s where the land is. You have to go there.”

Godlewski said there are pockets of available land within the city, but those often face more scrutiny and challenges than the outlying properties in the form of height restrictions, neighborhood opposition, density limitations and infill regulatory burdens.

In the outlying areas and towns, planners have a clear idea of what works for them and what doesn’t, he said. If you have a plan that aligns with that vision, you’re often welcome to bring your growth.

“They’ve each got a different approach or characteristics,” Godlewski said, citing Sahuarita and Marana as examples. “I think that the towns have done a very good job of valuing or establishing their own vision for their communities. That ultimately affects homebuilding and real estate.”

For ticket information on “The Power of Real Estate Summit” on April 19, 2024 at the Tucson Convention Center, please click the link below:


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