Andy Warren just plunked down $23 million, and he’s thrilled.

Warren, president of Arizona-based builder Maracay Homes, recently acquired the last real piece of residential infill property in Rancho Vistoso, roughly 30 years since development started in the 8,000-acre Oro Valley master-planned community.

He reported smooth sailing in the process with both town leaders and neighbors closest to the site, a 122-acre island of raw land surrounded by the back nine at Rancho Vistoso Golf Course.

“One of the Town Council members even said this is the way the process is supposed to work,” said Warren, whose company also has developments in the Foothills, Marana and elsewhere in Oro Valley coming online soon.

And although the so-called “donut hole” parcel was zoned for up to 1,100 residential units, Maracay will only build 345.

“I think that really made everyone kind of excited from the get-go,” Warren said.

With these 345 houses, Rancho Vistoso homes will be built out, and, noted Mayor Satish Hiremath, finally linked from east to west via a contiguous arterial road. More than 25 years after the annexation meetings that doubled Oro Valley’s land mass, the final homes are soon to be built in the town-within-a-town.

Rancho Vistoso has emerged as what some call the standard for master-planned development in Arizona. More than just a residential enclave, the area includes a hospital, an expansive continuing care retirement facility, an open-air mall and a tech park that is home to biotech innovators like Sanofi and Ventana Medical Systems. Its 8,500 homes range from condos to middle class single family homes, and from upper-middle class McMansions to multi-million dollar trophy homes, and its infrastructure will prime Oro Valley for potential development to the north.

Former Mayor Paul Loomis said Rancho Vistoso will be a transition area as the town grows, and that most people who live there are happy with it.

In its early days, Oro Valley was envisioned as a bedroom community for retirees and University of Arizona professors. With the growth of Raytheon and an influx of families, Rancho Vistoso provided the variety of homes and services needed for the shift in demographics, Loomis said. “It certainly raised the standard of living for Oro Valley.”

Paul Parisi served on the council between 1995 and 2000, years that he said were the biggest growth period for Oro Valley. Rancho Vistoso set the pace for the town’s development policy, and showed foresight by laying down bridges, sewer lines and roads with excess capacity so the town’s boundaries can continue shifting north, should the time come. Rancho Vistoso became a “gold standard.”

“I wasn’t really pro-development,” Parisi characterized himself. “I was pro having Oro Valley be a fine community and to grow to its greatest potential, and I think that it has.”

The premium on low density Warren saw when he promised to put in only about a third of the maximum allowed houses reflects a long-held value in Rancho Vistoso, the handsomely manicured northern half of Oro Valley.

But before it became the tranquil, comfortable community that it is now, Rancho Vistoso suffered growing pains. From its forerunner in the 1970s and lawsuits over annexation in the 1980s, to the developer’s involvement in the Savings & Loans Crisis, to town council acrimony and recalls in the 1990s and controversies over conservation of natural and cultural resources in the shadow of upscale homes and shopping centers, Rancho Vistoso did not grow up and out easily.

As project manager for Rancho Vistoso, Dick Maes was the human face of the development.

A close associate of original developer Conley Wolfswinkel, Maes took his first look at Rancho Vistoso in 1985. He still visits weekly, checking in on building that continues in the posh Stone Canyon neighborhood.

In a measured tone, he acknowledged that Oro Valley could be a tough crowd.

“They do have a lot of people that are against any type of development,” he said. “No matter what it presents, they’re against it.”

But that’s to be expected.

“It’s not unusual, whenever you’re developing something that all the neighbors will show up to be against whatever it is with the standard statement of, ‘Well, it’ll create too much traffic, and it’ll take away my view of the mountains,’ and things like that,” he said. “And that has not occurred here at this project. That’s what all the naysayers would tell you. But when you drive through that project, it’s all been laid out to the best of our ability to be a beautiful project that is a crown jewel in Oro Valley and all of Tucson. That project would compare to anything that’s been built in Arizona.”

Maes said it took a lot of work with the town, and a lot of meetings to convince people that he and his team were building a good project. It has provided a good economic base, with the Oro Valley Marketplace and Innovation Park.

And once you get on the other side of obstacles, they fade from memory.

“Once battles were fought everybody forgets about it,” he said. “They drive through and they can’t help but say, ‘This is a nice project.’”

From boom to bust and boom again

Rancho Vistoso is steeped in the push-pull of conservation and progress. Before there was Rancho Vistoso, there was the concept of Rancho Romero, a 4,000-acre parcel east of Oracle Road and along the tree-lined Canyon del Oro Wash and western foothills of the Catalinas that would have been home to 17,000 people. But citizens intervened on behalf of the rugged open desert, and in 1974 the Arizona Legislature passed a bill that set up a series of land swaps, leases and purchases that led to Catalina State Park.

In exchange, developers moved across Oracle Road. A new planned area development sketched out as Rancho Vistoso.

Del E. Webb’s Sun City came first, in the mid-1980s, in what is now Rancho Vistoso’s northeast corner. Sun City was still a relatively small retirement neighborhood miles to the north of Tucson when Oro Valley annexed it in 1987, and the development transitioned from Pima County to the young town.

Not everybody wanted the switch. Citizen groups and Pima County filed lawsuits to block the roughly 12-square-mile annexation — the citizens because they said the town wanted to allow more homes than the county would, and the county because it feared the developers wouldn’t pay their share for the $10 million in bridges and bank protection the county had already installed. The lawsuits settled in a matter of months and Rancho Vistoso was set to take off.

But within a few years, Rancho Vistoso would become embroiled in the Savings & Loan collapse. Chief developer Conley Wolfswinkel – an associate of disgraced Lincoln Savings and Loan financier Charles Keating – filed bankruptcy and, under accusations of fraud, was banned from developing property. Resolution Trust Corporation took over the Rancho Vistoso property and put it up for auction.

But in 1993, a few weeks before Wolfswinkel received probation for check-kiting, a corporation owned by his brother won the auction. At $37 million, the Vistoso Partners bought back the land at about 30 cents on the dollar.

Steve Hagedorn served as Oro Valley’s planning and zoning director in the 1980s and 1990s, going back to the project’s original site planning.

When the planned area development came to the town for approval around 1988, he said it wasn’t that divisive just yet. But with the growth spurt of the early 1990s, residents became more opinionated about planning and zoning matters.

“I think once it started to develop, I think the town was growing pretty rapidly at that point and it seemed like a lot of the meetings became a little more contentious and growth became more of an issue,” he recalled. “But when Vistoso was originally brought into the town for zoning, the original PAD approval, it wasn’t that controversial at that time. I think a lot of the development within Rancho Vistoso became controversial.”

Part of Oro Valley’s population influx came from out of state, including Californians who Hagedorn suggested seemed more environmentally conscious. At the same time, earth-movers started clearing through wider swaths of land.

“I think you start to see larger tracts of land taken down for development and the desert removed to do that the people became a little more vocal at that point,” he said.

“It’s hard to say what that tipping point is, but I think any time you see a large piece of property, meaning 100 acres or 200 acres, in the desert removed it piques their awareness quite a bit,” he added.

Town Turmoil and the OVNC

When Hagedorn was on staff, the town council was focused on growth into a “full-blown town.” He said the council and planning commission worked well together and shared goals. Around the early 1990s, he said, it started to change — the council became more environmentally minded, and neighborhoods were driving their decisions.

Rancho Vistoso was not the only development building in Oro Valley. The town was exploding with homebuilding and council meetings were often packed with residents up in arms.

Council meetings often erupted into shouting matches and various factions began fighting for control of the town and its development.

The related recall fever of the time — three recalls, with varying success, shook up the composition of the council over 1993 and 1994 — made it hard for staff to work. Hagedorn left the town staff in 1994, during the second of the recalls.

“It just seemed like a good move to get out of there at that time.”

By then, he said, pretty much any development was contentious.

But the biggest flashpoint, arguably, was in the mid-1990s over development near Honeybee Canyon. The small ephemeral stream flowed southeast out of the Tortolita Mountains past Hohokam petroglyphs and into a small arroyo and riparian habitat smack in the middle of Rancho Vistoso. Builders were erecting stylish, high-end homes close to the ecologically important canyon.

Nancy Young Wright led the charge to give the canyon a wider buffer.

Young Wright got her start in local advocacy by joining the town’s brand-new parks board to address a lack of playground equipment for her young children. The board also had purview over trails.

At around that time, she said, Honeybee wasn’t well-known even to locals, and those that did know about it figured it was a good trade for Catalina State Park. But the fledgling parks board was struck by its beauty and importance as a wildlife corridor, one of only three “Class 1” riparian habitats in southern Arizona along with Cienega and Sabino creeks. They decided to protect it. The Oro Valley Neighborhood Coalition was born.

Young Wright said she and like-minded neighbors formed the OVNC to oppose concentrated, high-impact development near Honeybee Canyon. The group was specific to Honeybee – she knew the town couldn’t buy the land back, and all they wanted was for the developers to cluster and move houses back from the canyon. But, she said, the developers had a tight grip on Oro Valley. With their deep pockets and high pressure, developers had the upper hand in general.

“If the playing field had been not so terribly un-level I think we could have had a bigger buffer, which is all we were ever seeking at the canyon,” she said.

Maes recognized the environmental turmoil. “It was some sensitive times.”

But, he said, more than half of Rancho Vistoso was set aside for open space or recreation, including parks, golf courses and Honeybee, about 1,100 acres of which was eventually preserved as Honeybee Park.

“We were very conscientious of protecting as much of the sensitive areas as we could and the development that occurred around Honeybee Canyon was all one-acre lots and has been very sensitive,” he said. “Most people don’t even know that the development is there as they walk through Honeybee Canyon. And that was the process throughout the whole project.”

Barry Gillaspie wore many hats over the decades. As a principal planner for Pima County, a member of Oro Valley’s planning and zoning commission and then the Honeybee Canyon blue ribbon committee, and finally a town councilman, Gillaspie says he took a pragmatic approach. When he was in a position to vote, sometimes he went with the developers. Sometimes he didn’t. With his unique qualifications in professional land planning, he became an asset to the citizen group that fought to wrap Honeybee in a wide buffer.

So sometimes, he was cast as a member of the Not In My Back Yard club.

At least, “that was how people wanted to label me,” said Gillaspie, who retired from public service in 2012 after eight years on the council. “I wasn’t fighting to stop the development. I was fighting to have the regulations protect more things, like open space.”

Gillaspie’s background in planning gave him breadth and depth in complex land use issues, allowing him to judiciously use the regulations to preserve open space and wildlife corridors.

“But I was never against the development because I recognized the development was going to happen anyway. The key is to try to make it the best you could so that we could have a great community.”

After the Honeybee battle, he said, people didn’t have the same energy to fight. Town Turmoil began to quiet down.

Young Wright said she holds no ill will. Developers were doing their job, so was town staff, and so were the citizen activists, as they saw it.

“I don’t regret standing up for this community and community values and standing up for something better for the future,” she said.

Grow or Tax

In 1996, the town purchased the Rancho Vistoso Water Company to the disapproval of some councilmembers who suspected a sweetheart deal. And in 2000, building went through hiccups in the Honeybee Village area as archeologists stood up for a large, mostly intact set of Hohokam ruins under what was to become houses. (The county preserved a small portion in 2005 using bond funds). But peace started settling in.

Loomis was mayor during this time, from 1998 to 2010.

He said the developers built what was best, not what was most profitable. And though he took some heat (he lost a re-election bid for a fourth term), he said the challenges for both sides were ultimately worthwhile.

“I think that the give and take was healthy and created a better community,” he said.

Hiremath, a dentist by trade who has lived in Oro Valley since 1990, is relatively new to Town Hall. As mayor since 2010, he says he looked to his constituents for guidance – Oro Valley could adopt a property tax, or it could continue to build its coffers through development. But if it didn’t want one, it had to be amenable to the other. The town couldn’t be against both property tax and development if it expected revenues.

Locals chose to stay property tax-free, so Hiremath has taken his cue – and some lumps.

“I got the same kind if rhetoric as far as, ‘Oh, he’s selling his soul to the developers. He’s against the environment,’” he said. “To me, the quickest way to be successful is to create those relationships until you reach the end of the tunnel and then they see that you did a good job balancing growth as well as trying to preserve as much of the open space as possible.”

Serving in the 1990s, however, would have been challenging.

“The emphasis really wasn’t on growth and development, I think it’s fair to say that,” he said. “It would have been more challenging. It would have been like pulling teeth — but fortunately for me, I’m a dentist.”

For all the tumult that ensued during and after his departure from town staff, Hagedorn said he wouldn’t have changed anything about how Rancho Vistoso matured.

“I think Rancho Vistoso was kind of the cornerstone for master-planned development. It was certainly state of the art at the time and I think it still does a very nice job of providing a master planned approach to development,” said Hagedorn, who still lives in Oro Valley. “I think it’s a beautiful development. Just driving through it, I think it speaks for itself.”

Gillaspie, who also still lives in Oro Valley, said Rancho Vistoso has become an asset to the area and he’s proud of what has been accomplished, including what he calls forward-looking planning should Arroyo Grande, the northern frontier, find the water and the economic impetus to connect to the town.

He said Innovation Park is also part of the future, as it too builds out, and quality corridors between Rancho Vistoso and the rest of the greater Tucson area.

“I’m hopeful that the leaders of the future won’t just turn that into a four-lane limited access highway and make it ugly and just have a bunch of strip commercial on Tangerine, and that they will think of it more as a quality of life connector that can connect businesses in Innovation Park to Marana and then up to the I-10 to Phoenix and then back down to the city of Tucson,” he said.

Hiremath said Oro Valley once made it exceptionally difficult for builders to come to town, but during his term town leaders have walked a proud balance. In 2011, the town passed the Environmentally Sensitive Land Ordinance, which required developers to leave a certain amount of open space, but in exchange build in higher density clusters. In 2012, it adopted the Economic Expansion Zone overlay district, streamlining the process for businesses seeking to relocate into Innovation Park.

Hiremath added that rooftops drive retail, and now that the area is very nearly built out, retail will come.

With infrastructure installed for a higher density than Rancho Vistoso ultimately saw, Oro Valley is in prime shape thanks to the development.

“Rancho Vistoso will be the driving force for the future of the town of Oro Valley,” he said.

Maracay Homes, the Scottsdale-based builder filling the donut hole, will dive into site development in the second half of 2014, with models available by early 2015 and residents moving in by that summer.

The entry will have a range of family, vacation, larger executive homes and semi-estates situated in six different gated neighborhoods, each with trails and other community amenities, accessible from Vistoso Highlands or La Cañada drives. This is the last housing development of any scale for Rancho Vistoso, and the idea is to be the cherry on top, said Warren, the company president.

“I think that this is perfect for Rancho Vistoso, where it is in its life cycle,” he said. “Because not only is it going to be attractive to new residents of Oro Valley… but the community now is mature enough for move-up opportunities.”

Contact reporter Hillary Davis at hdavis@azbiz.com or (520) 295-4254.