Rob Behr moved to Tonopah for space.
The 66-year-old with autism was sometimes misunderstood, which he said led to antagonistic encounters.
So he left Mesa five years ago for the tiny speck on the map some 25 miles west of Buckeye.
Life is different here.
For Behr, Tonopah is an escape from city folks misinterpreting his non-verbal communication gaps as disrespect.
“When they see the ambiguities of autism, when they see that blind spot, they fill in the blind spot with what they’re looking for,” he said.
For Cheryl Malysa, life here means less government and no HOA dictating what plants she can place outside her front door.
For Laura LuBien, Tonopah means she can have as many dogs — and any breed — she wants.
Tonopah isn’t just a place, “it’s a way of life,” as six-year resident Jessica O’Riley put it.
But change could be on the horizon for the remote, unincorporated outpost in Maricopa County, in the form of a 1,100-acre master-planned community called Verma Vistas III. The proposed development would quadruple the number of homes in Tonopah.
Related:Where will water come from for the massive, Flagstaff-sized community planned for Buckeye?
Vermaland, a Phoenix-based land banking and development company, wants to build 2,500 homes and 500 apartment units near 427th Avenue and Narramore Road.
While not as far west, other proposed housing developments west of the White Tank Mountains are in the works, most notably the massive Douglas Ranch master-planned community on 36,000 acres on the western edge of Buckeye.
Though Verma Vistas III is minuscule in comparison to plans for Douglas Ranch, Tonopah residents are fiercely protective of their rural lifestyle.
They don’t want anything to encroach on their mountain views, starry sky or farmland. They’re protective of their groundwater, too, since they subsist on private wells.
Still, they’re taking a generally laid-back approach to Vermaland’s plans.
They’ve seen similar proposals before, and they’re skeptical — some would say doubtful — it will come to fruition.
Verma Vistas III could quadruple households in Tonopah
Vermaland purchased the land, several miles south of Interstate 10 at 427th Avenue, in 2005 as growth hummed at full throttle and housing communities popped up increasingly farther west.
But the company’s intent to develop a housing community was waylaid by the housing market collapse and the Great Recession, Anita Verma, the company’s marketing director, said.
Vermaland leased the 1,100 acres to solar companies as they waited for the market to turn around. Mesquite Solar and Arlington Valley Solar Energy operate nearby.
Sixteen years later, they believe now is the time.
Vermaland has proposed a 1,100-acre master-planned community for Tonopah, an unincorporated area 50 miles west of Phoenix past Buckeye.
Vermaland CEO Kuldip Verma said increased demand for housing in the Valley and a lack of affordable options make Verma Vistas III a “tremendous opportunity.”
Home sales will start in the low $200,000s. Company officials expect the development to provide single-family detached rental communities and apartments at affordable rates as well as pricier, high-end houses.
If the plan comes to fruition, as many as 5,000 people could live in Verma Vistas III.
Verma said the community will fill the need for affordable housing options “as Buckeye gets more expensive.”
The company also anticipates the development will house future employees as more industrial employers locate to the West Valley, she said. The Palo Verde Generating Station, a nuclear power plant, is near Tonopah.
Still early in the process
Verma said the company intends to retain the land’s unincorporated status, meaning that it falls only within Maricopa County’s boundaries rather than in a city or town.
Vermaland plans to apply for a zoning change from the county that would increase housing density from the area’s current allowance of one residence per acre to as many as 12 homes per acre in the densest proposed neighborhoods, according to preliminary land use plans. Verma said the company would ask for a higher density allowance for the apartments.
The company has not yet applied for the zoning change, nor has it scheduled pre-application meetings.
Agriculture, wide blue skies and nearby mountains illustrate the landscape in Tonopah on Nov. 30, 2021.
Where will the water come from?
Vermaland has not yet determined how much water would be needed to serve its potential 5,000 residents or where the water would come from, Verma said.
The company could potentially contract with a private water provider or build its own water facility with a well and treatment plant, she said.
“There’s groundwater that’s available in the area,” Verma said.
Relying on groundwater, however, could complicate Vermaland’s plans for the 1,100-acre subdivision.
Vermaland would need to enroll in the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District, a legislatively approved workaround that allows developers to pull groundwater from one location and replenish water in another location to comply with state laws that limit groundwater use and mandate its preservation.
But enrollment in the district is not a given.
State law requires cities, private water companies or developers that pump groundwater to ensure a 100-year supply exists before construction can begin.
The Arizona Department of Water Resources already has halted expansions of Sun City Festival and Festival Ranch in western Buckeye, citing new evidence that may suggest inadequate groundwater, according to documents from the agency.
Beyond the state hurdles, Maricopa County subdivision regulations “dissuade” the use of groundwater, a spokesperson said.
“I would think any subdivision proposal seeking use of groundwater solely would have to demonstrate the water use to be less than the water recharge so as to maintain the groundwater’s aquifer and to mitigate potential subsidence and fissuring,” county spokesperson Jessie Caraveo said in an email to The Arizona Republic.
A subdivision that couldn’t “provide adequate assurances” likely wouldn’t receive the county’s recommendation for approval because it “would not be in the public interest,” she said.
Verma said the company would likely discuss Groundwater Replenishment District membership with residents during community outreach events if it went that route but that “we’re evaluating all our options” and will determine “the best solution.”
Some master-planned community residents in the West Valley pay into the Groundwater Replenishment District without realizing it, sometimes adding more than $150 in property taxes per year.
How the proposed development looks to provide water is of interest to the residents already in Tonopah since many rely on private wells.
“If somebody brings in a huge development and they start sucking water out of the ground, then all of a sudden they have dropped the level of water and people are running out of water,” Behr said.
Behr’s well extends 180 feet below surface level. He usually hits water between 117 and 121 feet down, he said. If water tables drop, residents’ well pumps could burn up and they would be left with thousands of dollars in expenses, he said.
Beyond water, Tonopah residents say they are concerned Verma Vistas III could wither away their rural, autonomous lifestyle.
Sale and address signs sit off Salome Highway near rural homes in Tonopah on Nov. 30, 2021.
Tonopah residents fear threat to rural, autonomous lifestyle
Jennifer Dickerson, 37, moved to Tonopah from the Phoenix area in April.
She likes the “space and small-town feel” and worries the housing development would bring Phoenix-style crowding.
She used to live on a cul-de-sac where “you could hear everybody around you.”
Now, she, her fiance and three kids live on nearly two acres.
“The bigger city builds anxiety. Out here, it’s more laid back. It’s more personable. You can enjoy your family without the crazy traffic or constant crime.”
Residents say they are happy to forgo shopping malls and streetlights for a serene environment to retire, raise a family or in some cases, just get some peace and quiet.
Maybe more residents would attract a local Home Depot or Walmart, they consider. Then, they wouldn’t have to trek 25 miles east to the nearest location every month or so. But the drive is worth it to avoid living in Buckeye — a place they consider too busy and urban for comfort.
They have a de facto “downtown” that works just fine, anyway. It’s at the intersection of Salome Highway and Wintersburg Road, where a Dollar General, Shell gas station and the Tin Top Bar and Grill sit.
Residents of Tonopah, an unincorporated area 50 miles west of Phoenix, call the corner of Salome Highway and Wintersburg Road their de facto “downtown.” The intersection includes the Tin Top Bar & Grill, a Shell gas station and Dollar General.
At best, the proposed housing sets in motion further development of the area, which leads to more crowds, traffic and highway lights that jeopardize the dark skies, residents say.
At worst, it could lead to annexation by Buckeye or the incorporation of Tonopah as its own city, they say, which will lead to pointless regulations that restrict their freedom.
“A lot of us are not fond of government,” Malysa, a 15-year resident, said. “Our layer of government starts at county level, not at HOA level, where we’re told what kind of plants we can put outside our front door.”
LuBien said she moved here to get away from the master-planned communities and HOA fees and rules. “I love the community out here, but it’s because we are all free to have our own property the way we like it without repercussions from a HOA,” LuBien said.
Other Tonopah residents have more specific reasons for living here.
Behr wanted space to work on his three old cars in his retirement. He also wanted space from people.
Sometimes he communicates differently because of his autism, he told The Republic. When that happened in the Valley, tense encounters would often ensue, he said.
Behr remembered a “humiliating” confrontation with a restaurant hostess who was offended by something he’d done and kept asking him “what the problem was.”
He wasn’t sure what happened; the way he saw it, he just ordered food. He believed it was something to do with his communication, he said.
Those troublesome encounters don’t happen in Tonopah, where he said residents “just want to be out somewhere where they won’t be bothered.”
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A wait-and-see approach
For all of the concerns Tonopah residents say they have, they deploy a mostly wait-and-see approach to the proposed master-planned community.
Some remember when developers proposed housing along Sun Valley Parkway — to the west of the White Tank Mountains — in the 1980s, most of which never came to fruition. It wasn’t until 2006 that some communities, such as Tartesso, got started.
Others are still waiting on ideas like billionaire Bill Gates’ 24,800-acre smart city called Belmont north of Interstate 10 or the proposed Interstate 11.
Development may come to Tonopah, Malysa said, but she won’t be surprised if it’s years or even decades down the road.
She hopes if Vermaland does come to Tonopah, representatives will engage with the community and make concessions, such as reducing density, to preserve their way of life.
Reach reporter Taylor Seely at firstname.lastname@example.org or 480-476-6116. Follow her on Twitter @taylorseely95 or Instagram @taylor.azc.
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AUTHOR: Taylor Seely