The Benson City Council approved the preliminary community master plan for a development proposed by El Dorado Holdings April 13, during a council meeting that packed City Hall to standing room only.
El Dorado’s Italian-themed Villages at Vigneto development plans 28,000 homes in the area formerly known as Whetstone Ranch, along State Route 90, about three miles south of I-10. While project supporters applaud the economic boost they expect it to bring Benson, the plan has its share of opponents. Several people spoke during a public hearing that preceded Monday’s council meeting and during the call-to-the public that followed the hearing. No one spoke in support of the project.
The controversy and vote
“The City of Benson has never been more in the public eye than it is tonight,” said Ana Land while reading a statement by Tucson resident Debbie Collazo during the hearing. “Local and national media are scrutinizing your actions on the proposed new city that could extend from the shadow of the Whetstone Mountains to the nearby San Pedro (River).” Through Collazo’s statement, Lands spoke of the 30 year effort that has been launched in Cochise County to “protect our last free flowing desert river.” Lands urged the council to “… please consider the 30 years of work by county residents to make sure the San Pedro does not become a dry river bed,” adding, “Don’t rush your vote.”
Throughout the hearing and call to the public, opponents expressed concerns about groundwater pumping, potential impacts to the San Pedro River and the need for more hydrologic and geologic studies to investigate future impacts.
Other concerns were aired on traffic congestion on Highway 90 and questions about trash and sewage were also raised.
The impact on the St. David School District and how it will handle the influx of new students was another concern, as about 80 percent of the development lies within that district. Exactly where jobs will be coming from to support El Dorado’s residents also came up. There are those who believe the development will be nothing more than a bedroom community for Tucson.
Despite the concerns, council members approved the preliminary plan by a 6-1 vote, with Councilman Patrick Boyle voting against it. While no one spoke in favor of the development at the public hearing or council meeting, the council’s vote of approval was met with a loud round of applause.
As the hearing’s first speaker, St. David resident Robert Blanchette set the tone of public comment by reminding council members of previously failed projects, including the solar energy park, a data center, a UAS project at the airport and a failed Smith Ranch venture from eight years ago.
“The residents of this area already spoke loudly and clearly about this issue eight years ago when Diamond Ventures tried to develop Smith Ranch,” he said. “The issue went to the voters and the development was defeated by a 67 percent to 33 percent margin, or 21,000 to 10,000 vote.”
He urged council to table the vote for at least six months so potential impacts to the area could be studied more fully. While the City of Benson has its 100-year water supply assurance from the state for the development, Blanchette said he does not believe anyone can guarantee a 100-year water supply, given drought conditions and such unknowns as depleting aquifers through groundwater pumping.
“This was a complete waste of time to come here,” he said after the meeting. “This council already knew how they were going to vote before ever listening to the public’s input.” Blanchette says he is considering organizing a referendum to have the development placed on a ballot, taking the issue to the voters.
Norm Meader, a now-retired University of Arizona geoscience instructor, also weighed-in on the impacts groundwater pumping could have on the area.
“When the Arizona Department of Water Resources says you have a 100-year water supply, all they’re saying is you can put enough straws in the ground and pull out enough water from a broad enough area that there is an adequate water supply for domestic use for that time,” he said. It does not, however, give a true picture of what is really going to happen to Benson’s water supply.
“You are going to be withdrawing water at a far faster rate than is being replenished,” he warned. Meader also said there will be conflicts with existing wells.
Sierra Vista resident Tricia Gerrodette said she appreciates El Dorado’s master plan, adding it is preferable to a subdivision-by-subdivision development, she does have questions about one of its architectural features.
“I wonder if you really intend this development to allow eight story buildings to be built, which is like downtown Tucson,” she said. “It seems inappropriate to me in this area… I also want to raise the point that this area falls within the Buffalo Soldier Electronic Testing Range for Fort Huachuca.”
Gerrodette questioned whether Fort Huachuca was aware of the buildings. Like others, she spoke of concerns to the aquifer and urged modeling and monitoring.
St. David resident Don Buchanan said he lives on the river and believes his property is “… in the same aquifer that we are talking about.” Like others, he urged the council to wait in its decision. Buchanan says he has already been forced to dig a second well.
“The main thing I want to say is, I hope you don’t make a decision now. There are a lot of facts and waiting to vote won’t slow down what the development is doing. If you don’t approve it now, it leaves you in a lot better position, legally, I believe to change things later on. If you approve something now and it turns out to be a mistake, then you’re going to suffer from it,” Buchanan said. “Please at least don’t’ make a positive decision tonight. Wait until you have more facts.”
El Dorado’s response
Mike Reinbold, president of El Dorado Benson, LLC, addressed the community’s concerns, including the Fort Huachuca question, which he said was handled by city of Benson staff. City Engineer Brad Hamilton confirmed that Fort Huachuca would not be impacted by the development.
Reinbold spoke of 2,500 acres of open space and the fact that El Dorado chose to bring in 28,000 homes instead of the 60,000, which was initially proposed and approved by another developer. Reinbold assured the council that he has fallen in love with the Benson area, referring to it as “…one of the best kept secrets in the state,” and that every effort to minimize environmental impacts are being made by the developer.
He also reminded the council and the public that the preliminary master community plan is an elective process, which El Dorado chose to do for the sake of keeping the community informed about the project. The preliminary master plan is not required of the developer.
On the issue of water, Reinbold said the state requires monitoring, and there is a system in place to assist with monitoring.
“We implement good practices on recycling water, using effluent water for irrigation. So, we are conscious of water use.”
Reinbold said he believes Villages at Vigneto, given its size, will create jobs for the region. “When you look at the community as it’s growing, it will attract new businesses,” he said, pointing to a proposed 50-bed expansion at the Benson Hospital, which will add capacity and bring more professional services to Benson.
Reinbold said St. David Superintendent Mark Goodman is already working on a plan to accommodate the student influx.
As El Dorado goes through its planning and engineering process, Reinbold said the goal is to be “development-ready” by the first quarter of 2016. He projects it will take about 18 months to complete the project’s infrastructure and amenities and various other construction projects.
Home construction will likely start around late 2017 or early 2018, with about a 20-year build-out. The construction will occur in phases, ranging in size and scope with the market demands, he said. The pace of the build out could be as low as 750 units a year to as many 2,500 homes in heated cycles.