|By Thomas Stauffer, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
May 10, 2005 - An investor group is working through environmental studies and gathering permits for a mammoth chunk of Sonoran coastline it envisions as a sprawling paradise of vacation homes, golf courses, resorts, nature preserves and more.
A marina, vineyard, winery, equestrian complex and Formula One track are also proposed for Liberty Cove, a 72-square-mile area -- three times the size of Manhattan -- north of Puerto Libertad, Sonora.
Los Angeles-based Rockingham Asset Management LLC bought the property last year for less than $25 million from Tucson developer Don Diamond, said Carlos Nagel, a consultant hired by Rockingham to work on community issues. If the resort were fully developed as envisioned, it would appraise for about $277 million, said Tucson real estate appraiser Bruce Greenberg.
Up the coast, another investor group is further along in developing Punta Delfon (Dolphin Point), a 1.5-mile stretch of coastline about 60 miles south of the international border. The first phase of the project calls for about 500 oceanfront condominiums and 200 home lots along an 18-hole golf course, said Ryan Porter, chief financial officer for Scottsdale-based Las Dunas Group.
Like Liberty Cove, Punta Delfon will supply its water from a desalination plant, not from groundwater, and will build a wastewater treatment system, Porter said.
"There is no infrastructure there at all, so we'll probably have to generate our own power as well," Porter said.
Both proposed developments support the visions of Mexican President Vicente Fox and Sonoran Gov. Eduardo Bours Castelo for attracting tourism and economic development along the Sea of Cortez.
Construction is already under way on a 375-mile coastal highway that will connect North Americans to the Sonoran beaches of Puerto Peasco by 2006 and Guaymas by 2009.
Nearly under way is a 350-mile pipeline to be built by 2008 to carry liquefied natural gas from Puerto Libertad to Hermosillo, Guaymas, Ciudad Obregon, Navojoa and Naco, Sonora. Eventually, a line will connect to Nogales, Sonora. From there, the natural gas would be piped for distribution to markets in the western United States.
The coastal highway, natural gas plant and Liberty Cove will completely transform the sleepy fishing village of Puerto Libertad, which currently has about 3,000 residents, Nagel said.
Though the company's Web site mentions molding Liberty Cove to become the "premier destination in all of Mexico," the company's finance director said it would be premature to tout what Liberty Cove will be.
"We're just working quietly right now, getting all of our approvals, so we've been avoiding press releases because we don't have anything to sell at the moment," said Rockingham's Robert Chernick. "We're doing all the homework we need to so that this is no longer somebody's pipe dream."
Though Liberty Cove could eventually have tens of thousands of inhabitants, be they vacationers, retirees or permanent residents, a large part of the 72 square miles probably will not be developed, said Walt Bouchard, a Scottsdale consultant contracted by Rockingham to work on permits and licenses for the project.
"The highest and best use of this property may be pretty limited," Bouchard said. "One of the things about the site that's great is the open space, and they want to preserve as much of the natural beauty as possible."
Gov. Bours is "very pleased" that projects such as Liberty Cove and Punta Delfon are emerging, said Diego Padilla, the Sonoran government's Arizona representative.
Unlike an earlier proposal to have oil tankers deliver to Puerto Libertad crude oil that would then move through a pipeline to Yuma, the two resorts represent a much more environmentally sensitive form of economic development for the people of Sonora, Padilla said.
"The state government is highly concerned about having oil tankers in the Sea of Cortez," he said. "If these projects prove to be environmentally responsible, they are a good example of projects that will benefit from the coastline highway."
Greenberg, who has done extensive appraisal work in Mexico, said it's definitely in the best interest of the Mexican government to promote development that will protect the Sea of Cortez's pristine environment.
"The state of Sonora, and in particular the federal government of Mexico, is very keen on biological controls and environmental controls," he said. "I think they're going to ensure that this development will be safe for the environment and the community."
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