November 2, 2004

The Arizona Daily Star recently printed an article about First United Realty purchasing Historic Sapori Ranch.  The Article quoted First United President Richard Schust several times. We have included the article as well as our letter to the editor which we sent to the Star and to the reporter. 

Historic Sopori Ranch sold for $22M

By Tony Davis

One of Southern Arizona's largest and oldest cattle ranches changed hands this week in a $22 million purchase that could lead to its development in a year. The new owners of the Sopori Ranch say they are not sure how they will develop the nearly 12,600 acres they bought Monday from an Illinois-based family that had held the ranch for more than a decade. The cash purchase also includes the ownership of state and federal grazing leases, giving the landowners the ability to run cattle on an additional 45,800 publicly owned acres in the surrounding hills.

"It's just beautiful. Beautiful property," said Richard Schust, president of First United Realty, of Phoenix, in explaining why he and other investors bought the land from the Croll family of Illinois.

Now, the future of Sopori, which straddles the Pima-Santa Cruz county line, has drawn the attention of environmentalists and Pima County officials because of its reported importance as a wildlife corridor.

A local environmental group, Sky Island Alliance, said it has tracked the movements of mountain lions, black bears, bobcats and other large mammals along two washes crossing publicly owned land near Sopori over the past year.

Covered by desert scrub, mesquite, catclaw, oak and a half-dozen perennial grass species, Sopori has long been prized by developers, ranchers, environmentalists and biologists. Its cattle ranching dates back to the days of explorer Juan Bautista de Anza, who ran the ranch when he controlled the Tubac presidio south of Tucson from 1759 to 1775.

From 1950 to 1993, the ranch was owned by the family and estate of movie mogul Jack Warner, and after his death in 1978, his widow, Ann Warner. The just-opened movie "Spin," directed by Robert Redford's son Jamie, was shot in part on the Sopori Ranch.

About 40 miles south of Tucson and 12 miles south of Green Valley, Sopori more recently has been seen as a potential "domino" leading to development of the Santa Cruz River Valley south to Nogales.

It's not far south of the 6,000-acre Canoa Ranch, where a 2,200-home development is under way following a zoning conflict in the late 1990s and early part of this century. More than 2,800 acres of the ranch lies within a half-mile of Interstate 19, making it an appealing location for ranching or development, real estate officials say.

But Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said this week that he's interested in having the county possibly buy some or all of Sopori's 4,300 acres inside Pima County.

The remaining 8,300 acres lie in Santa Cruz County.

The Pima acreage lies within the county's Conservation Lands System, which requires developers to set aside 75 percent to 95 percent of such environmentally sensitive land as open space when they get rezonings.

The head of a real estate company that brokered the ranch's sale said Thursday that he believes the new owners will develop Sopori as they have done numerous other ranches across the state: in 36- to 40-acre parcels rather than the higher-density, suburban master-planned communities ringing Tucson.

Schust declined to say how many investors exist and who the others are, saying, "I'm not really that interested in people knowing my business."

He said his group purchased the property as a long-term investment, with an eye to selling it for development no sooner than a year from now.

He refused to rule out a master-planned community but said investors currently have no plans to seek higher-density zoning than the current limit of about one house per four acres.

"If we don't do anything with it for a number of years, there's no problem," Schust said. "There is no bank debt on this. You never want to say never, but I can tell you at this point I'll be very surprised if we do anything on it in the next 12 months."

The company bought all but 515 acres of the private land, leaving behind the main ranch house complex. Brian Croll, one of three Croll family siblings, did not respond to questions about why the family wants to keep that land.

It probably had something to do with the ranch's historical importance and with the fact that John Croll, Brian's father, is buried on the ranch, said Dick Johnson, a Tucson Realty and Trust Co. associate who represented the Crolls.

In selling ranchettes on the 18,000-acre Salero Ranch east of Tubac, First United's Web site offers prospective buyers choices of "level to gracefully rolling terrain, verdant valleys to commanding hilltop overlooks, cascading rockwall backdrops to sparkling creek frontages, quiet cul-de-sacs and more."

"The fact that Rick Schust bought the ranch bodes well for those concerned for the environment," said Hank Amos, owner and CEO of Tucson Realty and Trust, which also represented the ranch buyers. "If I was an environmentalist, I would be glad he is the purchaser as opposed to someone else. That feeling of openness out there is probably going to stay that way."

But even 36- to 40-acre lots break up land where deer, bear and other wildlife play, according to a U.S. Forest Service biologist in Nogales.

"The bigger the parcel the better, but it still does fragment habitat," said the service's Debbie Sebesta. "It still has roads in there and people having horses. It's better than five-acre or one-acre parcels, but it is still left best the way it is."

Environmentalist Matt Skroch of the Sky Island Alliance said the group still hopes to find a conservation buyer willing to save the land. Another environmentalist, Daniel Patterson of the Center for Biological Diversity, said he hopes environmentalists can persuade the owners to cluster homes away from environmentally sensitive areas.

Skroch called the Sopori Wash, which cuts east-west across the ranch, "really the most important corridor across the Santa Cruz Valley," from the three mountain ranges of the Tumacacori Highlands to the Santa Rita Mountains: "A lot of species we normally don't see in the United States are coming into our region in that area because of the unbroken topography we have and the sky islands of Mexico."

Even 40-acre parcels could be a travesty if not properly controlled, said Rich Bohman, vice president of the Santa Cruz Valley Citizens Council, a community watchdog group operating from Amado south to Rio Rico.

"It's very rugged terrain. It would not make sense to go back in there and bulldoze roads, which is what happens with a lot of these 40-acre subdivisions," Bohman said.

From his understanding, however, the Salero Ranch's development is doing well, with lot-buyers signing covenants to prevent the 40-acre parcels from further subdivision, he said.

Schust said the investors are sensitive to the area and will try to take it "slow and easy and make sure there is a consensus on how this goes forward. I hope we can put together something where you don't find a great outcry of opposition. For now, nothing is going to happen to it."

To the Editor:

Your article on the sale of Sopori Ranch (published Friday October 29, 2004 ) is informative but it doesn't tell the whole story. You quote Richard Schust of First United Realty several times during your story. Our family is very familiar with Schust and the tactics that First United Realty uses to sell the land they acquire.

We owned property in their Salero Ranch Development. Mr. Bohman was incorrect that the land cannot be subdivided. Several parcels of the development were dividable in 1997, and any of the land could be subdivided in approximately 13 years from now, with a 75% vote of the home owners association.

And for Hank Amos, CEO of Tucson Realty and Trust, to say that First United is a good steward of the land was also incorrect and self serving. First United Realty sold property in Salero Ranch with the sales pitch that all land in the development would be sold as 36 acre ranches. After we purchased in Unit I, we were told by First United that Unit III was going to be traded to the Forest Service. In fact Unit III was sold to ASARCO mining company which is owned by Mexico-Groupo, a Mexican company. This unit was sold with strip mining rights. First United misled many buyers of land. No wonder Schust says he's “not that interested in people knowing my business.” He doesn't want people to know what he is doing. First we were told that the land would be 36 acre ranches, then we were told it would be open space, then we found out ASARCO owns it. Schust will tell you, as he told concerned Salero residents, that ASARCO is going to trade the land with the Forest Service. When we last contacted the Forest Service they stated there was never any discussion of a land trade.

We suspect the real reason for the sale of Unit III to ASARCO was because of an abandoned mine and the cost of cleaning up the toxic tailings left behind. This unit was sold to ASARCO with mine tailings from Alta Mine leaching into a tributary to Bond Canyon Creek, which empties into the Santa Cruz River . Bond Canyon Creek meanders through Units I & II and helps feed the water tables of those units. Residents of Salero Ranch have wells. We were never told of the hazards nor were we told of the sale to ASARCO. We had to find this information out for ourselves. We contacted the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) about the bio-hazards and ASARCO was ordered to clean it up. When we last checked, ASARCO was to be fined for failure to comply. We have no idea the current status, but we would be suspect of any assurances of “sensitivity to the area” surrounding Sopori Ranch.

First United Realty also illegally bulldozed in the access roads to Salero Ranch, without proper permits and put an access road directly through Bond Canyon Creek without obtaining any environmental impact information or pulling any permits. We doubt that Sopori Wash would be protected considering First United's history.

Why is Richard Schust so adamant about not releasing the names of other investors? Usually if you aren't “that interested in people knowing your business” about public sales of land – it leads one to wonder if there is something to hide. Richard Schust and First United certainly hid information from us.

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