PUERTO PEÑASCO, MEXICO--In a sea of desert, Rocky Point's Estero Morúa is an island of life. Gulls cry and dive for food in its warm waters. Blue crab and stingrays patrol its shallow depths. The steady chick-chick-chick sound of oyster farmers shucking can be heard over children laughing and splashing near the shore.
The Sea of Cortez is just over the next dune.
"We come here because it's pretty quiet," said Arturo Candelaria, 36, who brought his family to the estuary for dinner recently. "It's more difficult when you go to the city. It's not intimidating here--yet."
In August, Tempe-based Canusa Homes is expected to start work on five 21-story condominium buildings, 30 beachfront homes and a manmade lake atop the dune at Estero Morúa, a rest stop for the endangered least tern and other protected birds between North America and South America.
Developers say The Pointe de Las Conchas has the approval of Mexican authorities and awaits building permits form the city. But a Tucson-based environmental group is fighting the project with an online petition (www.petitiononline.com/ternests/) and claims that it will harm the estuary's food chain and its character.
The fuss from biologists at the Centro de Estudios de Desiertos y Oceáno, or CEDO, forced Mexican environmental officials to give the project a second look. Earlier this month, SEMARNAT, the Mexican version of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, asked for an extra 60-day review period.
"What we're predicting is that if you build five 20-story buildings on that dune on top of the (least tern) colony, you're going to destroy it," said CEDO biologist Alejandro Castillo López, gesturing across the estuary at the project site. "The least tern is not going to nest on that nesting site."
The project is yet another sign that the marriage between tourism and foreign investors in Rocky Point is turning this once-sleepy fishing town on its head.
"Rocky Point is probably one of the fastest-growing resort areas in Mexico right now," said John Alty, the project's sales manager.
Two million tourists are expected to cross the border for Rocky Point this year, he said. But with its proximity to Phoenix and Tucson, and with plans for a second airport and a federal highway project to lure more Californians, Rocky Point faces "a whole new batch of tourists," Alty added.
Canusa, whose principles live in British Columbia, is banking on the rush. Alty said the company bought the 24.2-acre site from a local Mexican family in December 2005 for $17 million. The land sits at the end of the main road into Las Conchas and overlooks Estero Morúa, one of six high-salinity estuaries in the Rocky Point area.
The Pointe de Las Conchas will have a manmade lake atop the dune for kayaking and paddle boats, a 37,000-square-foot lobby with a five-star restaurant and shops, and a total of 800 living spaces. Condos on the eighth floor and above will have outdoor spas, he said. About 400 workers will be brought in from Guadalajara, Mexico, to build it, Alty said.
The prices range from $265,000 for a one-bedroom condo to $3.8 million for a 6,900-square-foot penthouse.
Alty said the company's biologist found that the only least tern nesting site is further east near Playa Encanto, not near the project.
"We will not be affecting the estuary at all," he said. "Our property does not go down to the estuary."
Castillo López disagreed, saying CEDO studies show otherwise. He also points to a 1996 study by biologists in Ensenada, Mexico, that found the least tern living in Estero Morúa, among other places.
While being interviewed at the estuary by a reporter, Castillo López spotted four different bird species, including the least tern. All-terrain vehicles drove out onto the dune, and a yellow Hummer SUV parked on a sandbar below it.
Castillo López cringed and said this is exactly the kind of uses CEDO is trying to block. The group, which has hosted youth summer camps and led field excursions for 26 years here, is encouraging more ecotourism at Estero Morúa and elsewhere. For instance, CEDO officials recently helped oyster farmers here secure grant money to build restaurants and buy kayaks to lead tours.
They say uses like these preserve the area's character and culture. Lopez said they are better than condos--in a market that at least one local real estate agent said is already oversaturated.
Even the town's most respected historian is against the project. Guillermo Munro Palacio, a renowned local author and journalist, lamented the project's impact on the estuary.
He even sells condos on the side. But that didn't stop Munro Palacio from shaking his head at developers and the larger issue at hand.
"They should learn that estuaries are a way of life," he said. "That's where everything grows."
"We have to learn to live together," he added. "They can make money using the estuary as a nice place to be."