Diamond Bell Ranch stretches west of Tucson and is the vision of Mort Freedman, a Chicagoan who became enamored with the appeal of the West. Like many from the Windy City, he moved to Tucson in the late 1960s and soaked up the beautiful weather and open spaces.
Freedman, now 90, asked to give his perspective after I published The Housing Dilemma in Pima County’s Diamond Bell Ranch, focusing on why manufactured homes are not allowed.
When I wrote the original story I asked about, and searched online for, a homeowners association or the developer, but I couldn’t locate a contact. It wasn’t until after my article went live that I learned about Mort Freedman and his efforts to create a community.
Water in the Desert
Phoenix was on the verge of major growth when Freedman drove into Arizona. By 1966, Phoenix had a population of 730,000, according to Macrotrends.net.
“Phoenix was growing like wildfire with lots of commercial activity,” says Freedman, who had an interest in developing land in northern Arizona.
Then he looked 100 miles down the road and saw the benefits of living in Tucson, three times smaller with 267,000 residents.
“Here was a city that was beautiful and it was 10 degrees cooler than Phoenix.”
Freedman traveled south, took a close look around the area and decided it was going to grow. A real estate broker asked if he’d be interested in the west side which had been thoroughly neglected. He agreed and discovered there was a vast supply of water underground.
The area that caught Freedman’s attention was the O Bar J Ranch, open to development because of two state highways: Highway 86 and Highway 286 that connected the region with Mexico.
He bought 5,000 acres from Colonel Joseph Mueller who had been involved in organizing the U.S. Air Force but wanted to build a home along the central coast of California, near Santa Barbara. Another 5,000 leased acres came through the Bureau of Land Management.
Freedman envisioned one-acre lots that were appropriate for horse owners with the proper utilities including water, electricity and natural gas.
He divided the region into 14 units, with 350 lots per unit, and worked diligently with Pima County officials. By 1968, the first water well was drilled.
Eventually, the City of Tucson bought the well and now the 240 residences are supplied by the city.
Freedman paid to have natural gas extended into Diamond Bell Ranch and now, about 50 years later, every resident has water, gas, electricity. Utilities were placed underground so lines wouldn’t obscure the scenery. And by the late 1970s, the area had its own fire station staffed initially by four certified firefighters.
But what about the dirt roads that still run through the ranch?
“The county influenced us not to pave roads,” he said. “The area was heavily landscaped naturally and hard, compacted dirt roads is what the county wanted.”
The 90 miles of roadways with drainage were all made according to county specifications, noted Freedman. “We never had to landscape an acre and that included removing or relocating a cactus.”
The Vision Revised?
Residents expect the proper infrastructure that became available and was put into use. Freedman and his partner sold about 1,500 lots that sold for $ 1,795 and increased up to $5,000 in value as utilities were brought in. A celebrity spokesman even resided in the community, actor Forrest Tucker, the Sergeant on the ‘60s sitcom F Troop. And then, the growth stopped.
Freedman says the issues that put the brakes on his original efforts included differences with a business partner, policies of the 1970s when interest rates skyrocketed as high as 18% and a waning housing demand. Tucson had a 4.5 growth rate in 1972, but about a decade later that decreased to 2.43%.
The issue was recently raised that Diamond Bell Ranch is right for continued growth by allowing manufactured homes to be placed on the lots, since the demand for housing in Tucson is as hot as ever.
Manufactured homes have become a source of attractive housing for 22 million Americans, according to the Manufactured Housing Institute. They're built in factories but with 2x4s in the walls, sloping roofs, and amenities that rival those in traditionally built homes.
Since the '60s and '70s, they were known as mobile homes and were commonly placed in communities and on lots that the homeowner leased. Those types of "parks" are being bought up by Wall Street developers for upgrades and mixed use purposes, giving returns of over 4,000% to investors as noted in a February 25, 2020 Wall Street Journal article This Stock has Returned 4,100% since the Housing Crash.
The investors have driven up the cost of home ownership so open land may be a more affordable option.
Freedman, who remains the majority landowner in Diamond Bell Ranch, says he’s open to quality, manufactured homes in specific areas.
“There are three sections of land that would be ideal for manufactured homes,” he says, “and they would have a separate entrance and be about one mile away from the existing homes.”
He mentioned that the average home in the area is $240,000 and plans were laid for home values as high as $400,000, over four times the prices of a manufactured home.
Freedman says he understands that in the current econonmic climate there are families who would want to buy a manufactured home instead of paying for an apartment rental. Not only is the land available, but interest rates remain historically low and favorable.
The time may be right for new growth in this part of Pima County.