Continental Ranch Association (think Charles Keating)
Excerpts from a post of July 19, 2005 (Tucson Local Media)
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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. 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.
The Continental Ranch development, which governs 3,343 homes in Continental Ranch and another 968 in Sunflower, an age-restricted community with a sub-association of its own. 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.
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.”
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. 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.