In Cactus Country, It's Corrals Vs. Country Clubs

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When Leslie Shillingburg moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1972, they bought a home along Cactus Road with a panoramic view of the McDowell Mountains.

It was a classic Western tableau: rustic desert landscape, horses pastured in the front yard - and fewer people. The only thing missing was Hoss Cartwright.

Today, a five-lane thoroughfare cuts in front of their house and the traffic has become so bad that Mrs. Shillingburg, who breeds horses, keeps her foals in the backyard because of the fumes.

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The transformation of their pastoral neighborhood is symbolic of the changes under way in Scottsdale - one of the nation's fastest-growing cities.

Once called the "West's most Western town," Scottsdale may be witnessing the end of the cowboy era. Amid the Palo Verde trees and saguaro cactus, corrals are giving way to country clubs and ranchlands to upscale malls.

It is a transformation under way in much of the rapidly growing West. But in few places are the conflicts between old and new more intense than in this proud town on the edge of Phoenix.

"The way it was out here, you could ride through the desert anywhere," says Shillingburg. "It was free land. It's not free land any more."

Equestrians claim they are rapidly losing ground to developers and being harassed by newcomers who are moving into gated communities. Many horse owners are pulling up stakes. Others are fighting to preserve what remains of their lifestyle.

They say that if the city does not take steps to protect horse country, all that will be left of the town's Western heritage will be manicured golf courses, and luxury housing developments that bear the names of the ranches they replaced.

Western roots

Scottsdale, a Sonoran desert community east of Phoenix, is inhabited mainly by residents who are affluent. About a third are retired. Its population has swelled to 193,000 from 130,000 over the past seven years during the boom that catapulted Valley of the Sun communities to the top of the nation's growth charts.

The city issued a record number of building permits last year and became the seventh-fastest-growing city in the country. That pace of development has pitted residents who want to preserve the city's western ways against those promoting upscale resorts.

"It used to be there were horses all over the place," says Diane Solomon, head of equine sciences Scottsdale Community College. "There were hitching rails in Old Town Scottsdale and you'd see horses tied to them. It was that true western flavor."

The change has been particularly wrenching for horse owners. As corrals were replaced by high-density housing, new residents complained about odors, dust, and flies from neighboring ranches. Claims of harassment are legion. Horse owners say their new neighbors hurled insults, shot cap guns, and blared obscene music at riders. One says her horse was poisoned twice.

Serious horseplay

Susie Wheeler, president of Scottsdale Equestrian Association, a group she formed to act as an advocate for the horse community, says: "I started speaking for horses because it was so painful when this happened to me. Someone who moved into a gated community didn't want our horses there."

Most of the large ranches are already gone. Many of the large Arabian operations, hurt by tax law changes in the 1980s, either moved to Texas or went out of business. Other breeders have moved farther north to keep ahead of sprawl. Those who remain are increasingly tempted by developers offering as much as $100,000 per acre for their land.

Mayor Sam Campana and city planning officials say the city is trying to strike a balance that will accommodate the equestrian community as the town grows.

They note that the city recently purchased a large equestrian park that is host to one of the largest horse shows in the country. It also has plans to purchase and preserve 16,000 acres in the surrounding McDowell Mountains, and it is expanding trails that now lace the city.

"Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there who have a gang-plank syndrome: I'm on board, pull up the gang plank, nobody else in," says city planner Harry Higgins.

Some horse owners are optimistic about the city's efforts. Others are less so. Shillingburg, for one, says she thinks members of the equine community should have acted 20 years ago if they wanted to preserve the city's Western flavor.

Ms. Wheeler strikes a more positive note. "If we stand strong together, I think we can keep our lifestyle," she says.

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