Back in Gear: The Bike Ranch

The Pima County board of Supervisors will decide next week whether to greenlight a proposed bicycling resort across from Saguaro National Park-East.

The 45-acre plot of land, owned by Tucson-based real estate developers Kelley Matthews and Peter Lasher, is the proposed site for The Bike Ranch.

The resort, which would include 49 casita-style rooms, was originally brought up a half-decade ago, but was ultimately squashed after Pima County development staff recommended the Board of Supervisors reject granting a variance to allow the project.

That recommendation forced Matthews and Lasher to table their development, with the pair going back to the drawing board to come up with the current proposal, which calls for the project to be built with the most environmentally friendly practices.

Lasher said the current plan, which will also include a 34-foot-tall “bike barn,” a 79-space parking lot, a pool, outdoor seating and a restaurant and café, will be one of a handful of LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design)-certified Platinum resorts in the United States.

The certification, which is designated by the U.S. Green Building Council, would make The Bike Ranch the fifth hotel in the state to achieve LEED certification, according to the USGBC website.

Lasher said the main difference between the 2014 and 2019 proposals is the current iteration’s environmentally friendly design.

“We’re putting everything we possibly can into designing something that is going to totally benefit the community, be an example in sustainable design and development and operations in a desert location,” Lasher said. “We’re bringing green jobs and we’re bringing, hopefully, we hope more revenues to Saguaro National Park.”

There is strong opposition to the development, however, with several of the proposed resort’s neighbors taking exception to the pair’s plans.

Tom Colaric, who lives in the same neighborhood as the proposed Bike Ranch, is a co-leader of the Save Saguaro National Park group.

The group, which claims more than 100 members, objects to the proposed development because of the impact it would have on the neighboring park.

Colaric cited the fact that the surrounding property is zoned as “suburban ranching,” in which one property is allowed per 3.3 acres, as a reason to object to the resort’s development.

The longtime Tucson resident said he’s disappointed that the U.S. Department of Interior and National Park Service has given the project the proverbial green light.

Colaric’s main objection to the proposed resort is that it is located within a one-mile buffer zone of the park’s main entrance, which is on Old Spanish Trail, near Escalante Road.

Colaric said he’s worried that the Board of Supervisors’ vote on whether to permit Matthews and Lasher a conditional use permit could open a Pandora’s box of sorts for the neighboring acres of untouched land.

“I understand the fact that the developers have purchased the property and would like to do as they see fit,” Colaric said. “However, I’ve lived in this area for over 31 years, of which time all that has been within the buffer zone to the park. And I’ve lived at my current residence, which is about 25 feet north of their proposed resort, for the last four-and-a-half years, and we feel that the buffer zone was put there for a reason.”

Matthews, who called the Bike Ranch a dream three decades in the making, argued that the buffer zone, which was put in place in 1985 to protect the park from intrusive development, will not be violated by the development.

“Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a way to talk to people about this because they seem very firmly to believe that Saguaro National Park-East will suffer because of increased bike usage and we don’t agree with that,” Peters said. “People don’t like change, nobody likes change. We’d probably feel the same way on several topics, but at the same time our national parks belong to everybody.”

In a letter dated Feb. 28, Saguaro National Park Superintendent Leah McGinnis voiced her support for the Bike Ranch development.

McGinnis said her support for the project stems from its sustainable building practices and the park system’s growing encouragement of bicycling within park boundaries.

“The developer has made significant changes to the development plan since 2014, most notably complying with all current zoning regulations,” McGinnis wrote.

In a hearing on April 12, County Hearing Administrator Jim Portner reached a similar conclusion, recommending the approval of the couple’s Type II Conditional Use Permit to operate the resort.

In his decision, Portner laid out how the couple’s proposal would be a net positive for Tucson as a whole, rejecting the claim that its construction would harm the surrounding area.

“In rendering a prior recommendation to deny the same petitioner’s 2014 request, this Hearing Administrator clearly stated then that the vision behind the proposed use was found to have significant merit,” Portner’s decision reads. “Nothing has changed in this respect. The project as proposed represents an opportunity to further Tucson’s growing national and international reputation as a cycling destination, and to do so in bold fashion. This is a positive for our community.”

Colaric argues that the proposed ranch would benefit few, while harming the majority of residents that live in the area.

“Even though the park has given their support or at least they’re neutral about the development this time,” Colaric said. “We believe the park is owned by everybody and that it’s going to have a negative impact on the park itself and the surrounding areas.”

The main reason for Colaric’s opposition to the Bike Ranch proposal is its long-term impact on the area.

“We’re going to be living here far longer than the superintendent will be in this given area. She’ll be I’m sure moving on to some other assignment in the park system. But we chose to live here,” Colaric said. “We paid a premium to live here. You know, within the buffer zone and with the close proximity to the park. And we think the county supervisors ought to uphold the buffer zone.”

Supervisor Steve Christy, whose District 4 includes the entirety of Saguaro National Park-East, said he’s still undecided on the project.

Christy said he planned to hold meetings with neighbors and the developers between now and the Board’s May 21 vote to approve the Bike Ranch’s conditional use permit.

“My current position relating to the bike ranch is that I still have some data-gathering to do, particularly with neighbors to the proposed site,” Christy said last week.

Christy said his main concern is that the resort’s neighbors and the neighboring national park are not negatively impacted by the development.

“In 2014, one of the defining features was the resistance seemed to be utilizing the park’s objection,” Christy said. “And that was kind of their rallying point, that the integrity of Saguaro National Park-East would be jeopardized. That objection by the Parks Service has now been removed and diminished, so now I have to analyze what credible areas of resistance still exist.”

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