July 20, 2005 - Since its shaky beginnings in the 1980s, Continental Ranch has been a cauldron of controversy, a place where neighborhood activism takes on its true meaning - perhaps a world within its own bounds.
To many Continental Ranch residents, their homeowners association is the government they turn to when they have a concern, whether it's the pools being closed, not being allowed to park their cars on the street, or being told to tear down the fruit tree in their front yard.
Located west of Interstate 10 and north of Cortaro Road, Continental Ranch is the largest subdivision in Marana and one of the largest communities in Southern Arizona with more than 4,000 homes represented under its homeowners association.
It's a place where parks, recreation, swimming and shopping opportunities are abundant, where quality schools are found nearby, and, regardless of how they feel about any outstanding issues, it's a place most residents are happy to call home.
"I have enjoyed living here immensely," said Sandy Padilla, a Continental Ranch resident for the past three and a half years. "It's a very active community and it's a very involved community."
The Continental Ranch development, population 16,640, canvasses a slightly larger area than what is represented by the Continental Ranch Community Association, which governs 3,343 homes in Continental Ranch and another 968 in Sunflower, an age-restricted community with a sub-association of its own.
The association's board of directors recently pushed through a budget for the 2005-06 fiscal year totaling more than $1 million, including a 12 percent increase in dues. Continental Ranch residents pay $252 per year in association fees that go mostly toward maintenance and services in their community, but they'll soon pay an extra $2.50 per month to help inch toward a hefty wish list of capital improvement projects.
Inside a small community center on Coachline Boulevard, dozens of residents like Padilla attend regular homeowners association meetings where they passionately voice their concerns about neighborhood issues, sometimes loudly and often in no orderly manner - something quite different from most Marana Town Council meetings.
Since 2002, the association's board of directors has been composed of seven residents elected by their peers. While much has changed since the days when the association was controlled by developers, homeowners meetings still draw a mixed crowd of residents, some of whom still aren't 100 percent satisfied with decisions being made, but most of whom say they're happy to live in the community.
Board meetings usually start at 7 p.m., drawing anywhere from a dozen to a few dozen residents who sit in rows of plastic lawn chairs inside the small community center. During the course of any given meeting, the sun makes its last fading attempts to peer through the blinds that cover a long row of windows along the west wall as steady screams of children playing in the pool outside are heard through the thin glass. All the while, residents are inside, often on the edge of their seats, debating the night away.
Board members sought input from residents June 22 as they prioritized a list of capital improvement projects, which, at the top of the list, included remodeling the cramped community center. A close second priority was pool upgrades, as board members say the current system isn't equipped to filter water quick enough. In the interim, the pools have been closed certain days for upkeep, irritating some residents.
With these issues in the forefront of their minds, many residents say they feel they're becoming a second, third, or even fourth priority to a new quarter-million-dollar computerized irrigation system, which the board has approved to fund. Meanwhile, residents are expected to wait an estimated two years for an expansion of the community center, which they say is hardly adequate to hold the 45-plus seniors who pack in shoulder-to-shoulder on a Thursday morning.
At a recent meeting, one resident said she wouldn't be surprised if the fire department came in and "put the kibosh" on the center.
Walter Ross, chairman of the association's strategic planning committee, said the community center could see up to a 40 percent increase in size with slightly more than $200,000 in renovations, including a 12-foot extension of the north side of the building.
"The building, thank god, is not falling down," said board member Sharon Dvorkin-Solotky, reassuring residents at a recent meeting that things aren't too bad because "It's still standing."
Still, many residents aren't happy with what they consider excessive spending on a new irrigation system, which replaces an older, failing system some board members describe as "shot."
"I don't think they should have done that without going to the people to spend that kind of money," said Padilla, who resigned from the association's finance committee because she didn't agree with some of its practices. "It's a lot of money to spend without asking the people for a vote on it, but sometimes these things happen."
Carol Altmann, who also resigned from the association's finance committee at the June 28 board meeting, said she wasn't happy with the decision to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new irrigation system.
"It's just costing so much money," said Altmann, who had been on the committee for three years and whose husband Ed is on the pool committee. "I didn't feel they were doing their job and I didn't want to be a part of it anymore."
During a May 16 study session, board members pored over a proposed budget that included a hypothetical 23 percent increase in dues, which drew ire from homeowners. It was only later discovered that the association's rules allowed a maximum increase of 12 percent in any given year.
"Over the last two months, we came up with a budget that looks good," said Board President Larry Schoof, a software engineer for Raytheon Missile Systems.
"We have run a real tight ship this year," said Treasurer Jan Mann, a retired nurse from Chicago. "We had to put in an irrigation system. We don't have a choice about it."
Mann said the association is paying sometimes $4,000 a month for irrigation system repairs, which she considers outrageous.
Other residents are concerned that the association will pay Platinum Management Inc. more than $233,000 to manage the community this upcoming fiscal year. Since April 2003, the association has contracted with Platinum Management, which has a laundry list of properties it oversees throughout Pima County and Southern Arizona, though Continental Ranch is by far its largest, said Kathleen Longnecker, president of the company.
"We feel very honored to have been chosen to manage this community," she said. "We know there's issues; there's always issues with homeowners associations, but we're thrilled to have Continental Ranch. The people here are phenomenal."
Wheeler Abbett and his wife, Charlyne, two well-known residents of Continental Ranch, say they've watched the community evolve since they arrived in 1989. Back then, the view through their kitchen window offered a glimpse at what would today seem unimaginable.
"There was not a thing across the street. I could look right out my kitchen window and, if I could see that far, I could see right past Cortaro and Ina; there was nothing out here," said Abbett, who lives in a subdivision just off of Coachline Boulevard.
The house the Abbetts built in 1989, and still live in, was the 15th home to hit Continental Ranch, which today accounts for more than half of Marana's population of 28,800.
"People never thought this Continental Ranch would take off," said Abbett, who served as chairman of the town's Planning and Zoning Commission for several years in the 1990s and has a park in Continental Ranch dedicated in his honor.
"It was almost like Topsy," he said, referring to a young girl in the Harriet Beecher Stowe book, Uncle Tom's Cabin. "It just growed."
Continental Ranch, Marana's first master-planned community, is now perhaps a blueprint for what modern-day Marana hopes to become as the town pushes forward with new mass residential developments that ring a familiar tone to the development started more than two decades ago by Charles H. Keating Jr.
But to fully understand the success of Continental Ranch, one must first look to its roots, which lie in the post-World War II years when tracts of vacant land along the Santa Cruz River were acquired and held as an investment by the Dow Chemical Company.
The land passed through a string of speculators over the years before being purchased by Tucson developer Lew McGinnis, who envisioned a large master-planned community known as Peppertree Ranch. McGinnis, who in 1988 pled guilty to four counts of theft for diverting profits from an unrelated development in Tucson, barely got Peppertree off the ground before the land was passed along to Keating of the infamous savings and loan scandal of the 1980s.
Continental Ranch's name is derived from Keating's holding company, American Continental Corp., which went bankrupt in 1989 along with Keating's Lincoln Savings and Loan. In 1990, Keating was charged with having defrauded customers into buying junk bonds, causing thousands of investors to lose their life savings. He eventually spent four and a half years in prison.
But it was in 1987, when Marana was just 10 years old, that Keating convinced the Marana Town Council to annex 2,100 acres of Continental Ranch. Keating had already created a specific plan and gotten his development approved by Pima County. The selling point to Marana was that the young town would make money on building permits and inspections.
Longtime Marana resident Billy Schisler, who was on the Town Council from 1979 to 1993, was mayor when Keating brought his idea before the town, which operated out of an old homestead on Sanders Road at the time.
"Marana, at that time, was kind of overwhelmed with his plans, but we thought it'd be nice to maybe get that area," Schisler said. "I don't think there was anybody against the annexing. We bought it lock, stock and barrel."
All things considered, many are quick to acknowledge that Keating contributed a great deal to Marana by putting in place much of the infrastructure needed for Continental Ranch. That included paving several roads, including a four-lane Silverbell Road and Coachline Boulevard, as well as extensive utility work.
"Charles Keating did a lot of good things - this is aside of him defrauding investors or whatever. He did a lot of the layout and everything pretty well," said Mayor Ed Honea.
"I thought he had a lot of vision to envision Continental Ranch in this place, because this was previously just cotton fields," Abbett said.
The federally supervised Resolution Trust Corp., which oversaw the liquidation of Keating's holdings, acquired the Continental Ranch property in the late 1980s and the land sat dormant for several years until Southwest Value Partners purchased it for pennies on the dollar in 1992.
Greg Wexler, an agent for SVP who oversaw much of the development in Continental Ranch, recalls when SVP parceled out the land and began selling off "super blocks" to homebuilders who turned the empty lots into the sea of houses that exist today.
Schisler recalled that time, too, remembering when the town had to rewrite its land development code.
"We got caught with our pants down when it really started building out because we didn't have the staff to handle all that new construction and everything all at once," he admitted. "That was a real challenge."
Still a major landowner in Marana, SVP is a partnership headed by Omaha, Neb. building tycoon Millard Seldin and former National Bank of Arizona President Robert Sarver, who owns the NBA's Phoenix Suns.
For several years, Continental Ranch was controlled by developers, including Wexler, who served as vice president of the association's board of directors throughout the 1990s. The board was dominated by members of Ranch Holdings, one of Sarver's partnerships managed by Wexler. The association eventually was turned over to homeowners in 2002, but only after a series of aches and pains.
"The homeowners association, obviously, was a little bit of a mess," Wexler admitted, recalling the early years. "We reconfigured and changed some assessments and set up a new board."
The conditions were enough to cause a handful of residents to protest nearly every weekend from May through December in 1994, urging people not to buy homes in Continental Ranch. Every weekend, it was a given they'd be picketing outside the entrance to the community, crying out "taxation without representation."
"They were die-hard, boy," Abbett said. "They'd sit out there in camp chairs Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and anyone who had a strange license plate, they'd stop the car and tell 'em, 'Don't move in this area.'"
In November 1994, the Marana Police Department responded by confiscating protesters' signs, saying they violated a sign code. Ray Brisbine, an organizer of the Pro-Action Group that picketed, still lives in Continental Ranch and remembers the protest well. He accused police of selectively enforcing the sign code and pointed out several other violations throughout town.
"I'm lucky I survived," he said. "I'm not sure we accomplished that much, but I think what we did, though, is we gave other people the idea that you don't have to put up with something you don't like."
Many of the protesters were responsible for bringing a recall election the following year in which they tried to oust two "pro-growth" officials, then Mayor Ora Harn and Vice Mayor Sharon Price. Price was employed by the Continental Ranch homeowners association, which some residents deemed a conflict of interest.
Brisbine said the recall may have been unsuccessful, but the polls were evidence that many people were unhappy with circumstances in the community.
Discontent with the developer-controlled association also resulted in confrontational board meetings at which Marana police officers had to be on hand, recalled Wexler, who admitted he sometimes lost sleep after long meetings.
"There's always rabble-rousers and there was about three or four seniors that were a little bit out there," he said. "They were so out there that it was like you couldn't satisfy their issues."
Continental Ranch resident Marty Ledvina, a retired administrative law judge, took the association to court in 2001 when he wanted to see how much the association was spending on attorney fees. After an expensive legal battle, a Pima County Superior Court judge sided with the association.
While association meetings still draw some discontent, Marana police officers no longer have to be on hand and many say the new homeowner-controlled board has the right vision for the community.
"It's been an interesting journey for the association," said Longnecker, of Platinum Management. "They've made tremendous strides in the last two and a half years thanks to the terrific leadership of the board they've had since they turned it over to homeowner control. I think the developer board did a great job, too, but the homeowner board, they have the passion, and you can't run a homeowners association without passion."
Through extensive volunteerism and a general concern for their surroundings, the residents of Continental Ranch have been able to persevere through hard times and continue to keep their community's future in mind.
Padilla, who serves as the association's activities chairwoman, and JoAnn Ross, activities coordinator for the community's seniors group, are responsible for organizing many events that go on in Continental Ranch.
On a recent Saturday night, they held what was billed as a "women's night out," at which more than 40 women in the community were treated to professional manicures and footbaths at the community center.
Padilla also organizes Continental Ranch's walking club and book club, among other groups. Whether it's tea at Tohono Chul Park, lunch at the Sky Rider Café, or a trip to Casino Del Sol, residents in Continental Ranch are always staying active, she said.
But because seniors often have extra time on their hands, it's the older residents who seem to get more involved in the community.
During a June 30 potluck in conjunction with their regular Thursday morning meeting, the Senior Citizens/Retirees of Continental Ranch wore red, white and blue to celebrate Independence Day early as they feasted on shrimp, lasagna, deviled eggs, meatballs, pasta salad and desserts at the community center.
Growing all the time, the group has 83 members who pay $2 a month to join, said Eldon Cullison, the group's president, who echoes his peers when he says they're not just a bunch of "old fogies." Instead, they're a rather active group.
"What makes this club work is the people; we're not a laid back group, we're a fun group," said Cullison, recounting the last hiking trip the group took during which seniors brought along their squirt guns and had a shootout as they marched through the mountains. "We're kinda kids," he admitted.
The group has several active philanthropies, including regularly collecting food and clothing for charities such as the Marana Food Bank. At the same time, the group is known to go on regular outings to the casino, visit museums, and take trips to places such as Bisbee and Tombstone, and beyond.
Gladys Pope, a retired schoolteacher and also the group's vice president, moved to Continental Ranch with her husband, John, several years ago. She remembers the first day she went to join the seniors group and found them all piling into a bus to go to the casino.
"They tried talking me into coming along," she said with a laugh, commenting on how the group welcomed her with open arms.
Ross said the group also has a "sunshine chairperson" responsible for organizing cards, food baskets and prayers for members of the community who experience illness or have to go to the hospital for any period of time.
"There is a real sense of community," she said. "Most people who live here are from other areas, and they come without any friends in the area, so this is very nice. It's a very caring group."
Over the years, several Marana officials have chosen to call Continental Ranch home, including Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman David Parker, former Mayor Bobby Sutton Jr. and former Councilwoman Roxanne Ziegler.
Councilwoman Patti Comerford lives in Continental Ranch next-door to her father, Councilman Jim Blake. Like many of the residents, Comerford is a transplant from another state.
A native of California, she moved into the 450th home in Continental Ranch in 1994 when her husband took a job with the Hughes Aircraft Company, which was later bought out by Raytheon Missile Systems.
"On my street alone, when we first moved here, there were maybe 12 houses. Of those, at least half of them were Raytheon employees or Hughes employees at the time," she said. "I think that's where a lot of the camaraderie came."
Comerford attributes the ability of residents to associate themselves with a community they didn't grow up in to the fact that most realize they're in the same boat as everyone else.
"You find relationships through that," she said. "What makes Continental Ranch so unique, even with its immensity, is that everybody watches out for everybody. All things considered, it's a pretty nice community."
Residents have plenty of opportunities to keep active in Continental Ranch, too, with multiple parks and swimming pools in addition to numerous "tot lots," which are play areas for children that are all woven into the fabric of the community.
Continental Ranch has seen about all of the residential development it's going to see, about 100 more homes still are planned for construction and there's still open space that could be rezoned for residential use.
Wexler, still a Continental Ranch resident, was responsible for bringing much of the commercial development to the area in the past several years, which has helped make it a well-rounded community. For a while, not much in the way of commercial business could be found in Continental Ranch until Fry's supermarket, the first neighborhood shopping center, was approved by the Town Council in 1996.
In the late 1990s, Wexler pushed for more businesses, overseeing development of the Arizona Pavilions commercial "power center" along Cortaro Road, where a wide array of stores such as Kohl's and Blockbuster are found today.
"It took a while to get an anchor tenant," he said. "Once I got Wal-Mart, I had a deal."
Now in the last stages of commercial development, another 30-acre site at Arizona Pavilions - the second phase of Wexler's commercial power center - will include stores such as Pier 1, Chili's Grill & Bar and In-N-Out Burger. Another five-acre commercial strip center, known as Coachline Crossing, also is planned for the Silverbell and Coachline area.
"I think the town of Marana has been a very good partner with us and other developers," Wexler said. "Because of that, you're seeing very nice projects and a lot of participation between the town and developers."
Comerford said she welcomes new growth as long as it's planned well, but traffic along Cortaro and Silverbell roads is a lingering problem that needs to be solved.
The town has modified and widened Cortaro over the years and still plans to add two more lanes, but constructing a new I-10 interchange at Twin Peaks Road will be the answer to many residents' prayers in 2008. It's expected to alleviate much of the congestion that results in daily traffic backups as Continental Ranch residents are funneled down Silverbell to a single interchange at Cortaro.
"I don't see there being a whole lot else they can do residentially out here," Comerford said. "I'm just hoping that interchange gets going and that we get that open to help with some of the traffic issues out here. It'll make a great difference."
Now that Continental Ranch is nearing buildout, Honea admits the town never knew quite what to expect, but it's been a welcomed addition to the community. Where Abbett recently donated $1 million toward a new library to help pay for a book collection, the town is now constructing a 48-acre district park near Silverbell and Cortaro roads. All things considered, the future looks bright for Continental Ranch.
"Continental Ranch has been a real asset to Marana. It kind of showed us what maybe the rest of the community will look like 20 years down the road: more urbanization, more businesses, the need for better transportation infrastructure, more amenities, more parks," Honea said. "Continental Ranch is by far the largest community in our town today. It was kind of a tough climb getting to where we're getting, but it turned into a success story."